Hot Take: Airlines Should End Complimentary Food Service (On Shorter Flights)

by Giovanni

You’ve probably heard people complaining about it. Food used to be free on every flight, but now an increasing number of airlines (even supposedly “full-service” carriers) have dropped complimentary food service on short-haul flights. You’ve heard people bemoaning this as degradation of service.

I’m a frequent flyer from the US who studied in Europe. I primarily flew on carriers like British Airways or Iberia on European flights. I also flew on low-cost-carriers like Ryanair, EasyJet, or Wizz when they had a more direct route or the price difference was big enough. All that said, I’m used to having to buy my own food on short-haul flights.

Now, I know the buy-on-board concept for food and drinks on short-haul flights rankles many passengers who once expected free meals on flights. But bear with me here, this isn’t as clear cut as you think.

Marks & Spencer British Airways

The Case For Buy-On-Board

Take, for example, British Airways’ concept. British Airways sells food on board from a menu, developed in partnership with Marks & Spencer — another quintessentially British brand, offering high-quality foods all under the cost of £5.

The menu accommodates people with a wide variety of dietary preferences and restrictions. Whether you want a “Turkey Feast” sandwich, some crisps (yes, those are potato chips), or a gluten-free shortbread, you can get it from the onboard M&S menu. But you’ll need to whip out a debit or credit card, use Apple Pay, or spend Avios at a terrible redemption rate. Cash is not accepted.

The conventional wisdom is that this concept is reviled nearly unanimously by passengers who are used to be offered drinks and food for free on full-service carriers. That’s not surprising. People are never happy when they get charged for something that used to be free.

But sometimes, change is good. Moving to a buy-on-board food concept on short flights is one of those times.

Let me clarify, though. I’m not defending buy-on-board drinks. Charging passengers for water, sodas, or even coffee after they’ve shelled out for a full-service airline is asinine.

The Quality & Choice Factors

But, growing up, most of my flying took place in the states where all four major US carriers eliminated complimentary food on short-haul flights years ago. Free food on flights (besides pretzels) just wasn’t a thing. And yes, I realize longer premium transcon flights are getting meal service restored.

For the most part, if I wanted something to eat, I looked through the menu, found something I wanted and ordered it. No problem, and I usually got something that I wanted to eat.

free food on flights

In the United States, American Airlines partners with Zoës Kitchen for BOB | American Airlines photo.

Swiss Sandwich…Yuck

A few weeks ago, I flew Swiss from Amsterdam to Zurich in economy. Like other full-service carriers owned by the Lufthansa Group, Swiss still offers free drinks and a sandwich on board.

The flight was uneventful and, as is typical for Swiss, operated on time with a competent and friendly crew.

And true to form, they served a complimentary snack. A choice between a chicken and cheese sandwich.

I’m vegetarian so I picked the cheese sandwich. This is what it looked like.

free food on flights

The bread was dry, the cheese was stale, and there was virtually no spread on the sandwich provided by Swiss. Photo by author.

And that bite was the only bite I took.

I appreciate what they’re trying to do by offering the snack. But I would need to be in truly dire straights before I chose to eat that sandwich.

Others seemed to agree with my assessment. My seat neighbor threw hers away. And I saw plenty of others discarding their uneaten sandwiches. Talk about a waste of food!

That’s the problem with offering one or two options to a plane full of people with varying dietary requirements and preferences. Some of your passengers may enjoy it, others will not.

I was hungry and would have liked to purchase some food on the flight. But Swiss does not offer food for purchase on intra-European segments.

I remember another flight while traveling in Southeast Asia, a domestic segment on Thai Airways. The flight was only about an hour, but around came the flight attendants offering a sandwich. I wasn’t hungry since we had eaten a delicious Thai meal before the flight, and good thing: Neither option was vegetarian.

Thinking back, I can’t remember a single short-haul flight with a complimentary meal service where I’ve actually enjoyed the meal.

free food on flights

British Airways offers a robust BOB selection in partnership with Marks & Spencer, all under £5. British Airways photo.

Contrast that with British Airways who do not offer any complimentary snacks onboard but do offer a wide selection of high-quality (and IMO quite delicious) items for sale in partnership with Marks & Spencer. I regularly buy snacks onboard their flights, and I enjoy them.

The Upshot

It’s time to eliminate the one-size-fits-all snacks that don’t meet the needs of every passenger on short-haul flights.

Unless airlines are prepared to cater to every passengers’ diverse dietary needs, I’d rather have some decent buy-on-board options. In the age of “flight shaming,” getting rid of these unnecessary meals is also an ecologically friendly choice, reducing waste and aircraft weight.

Replaced with a reasonably priced onboard menu, airlines can meet the needs of more passengers and provide a better quality of service.

But, please, bring back free drinks.

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derek November 19, 2019 - 1:56 pm

Be careful. Swiss may start charging for that awful sandwich and you will have no choice.

JW November 19, 2019 - 3:48 pm

For Asian carriers, you could specify dietary requirements by ordering a special meal up to 24 hours before the flight and can be done online, even on extremely short flights. Don’t let your ignorance and judgement lead to ways of profiteering for airlines.

Giovanni November 19, 2019 - 3:52 pm

That’s fine and well on Asian carriers (and I’ve done that), but I still question the necessity of a meal on a short flight. Get a quick meal in the lounge or terminal before the flight.

Chrs December 8, 2019 - 7:58 am

you can specify dietary requirements on all airlines that offers complimentary meals, not only asians ones…

parco November 19, 2019 - 8:46 pm

I think it is not necessary to cut off this free food service.

Chrs December 8, 2019 - 7:51 am

Swiss does offer BoB for all it s European Flights out of Geneva (except the geneva Zurich), where it has to compete with Easyjet. Like BA with M&S Food, It s a quality Brand that is associated. But they still offer free water bottles and for frequent flyers and economy flex passengers the sandwiches you dislike….


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