Which Airlines Serve Pre-Departure Beverages and Meals In Domestic First Class

by on October 7, 2013 · 26 comments

in American, Delta, United, US Airways

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People always complain that flying “ain’t what it used to be”, but I disgaree with that- airlines have been upping their game over the past couple years, sometimes offering a pretty impressive meal and wine/premium cocktail service. Granted, I rarely have a meal on a plane that would compare to even a mid-grade restaurant and often food options turn out to be inedible (like my recent Cheateaubriand on American from Madrid to JFK- it was inedible- stay tuned for that report).

Predeparture beverages (when you get a drink during boarding and before takeoff) are a nice perk too, but lately I have noticed that they are not always served – not even water or juice – which got me thinking about which airlines offer a pre-departure beverage as well as their first class meal options when flying domestically.

Pre-departure drinks are expected in first class, but not always delivered.

Pre-departure drinks are expected in first class, but not always delivered.

While pre-departure drinks are an expected perk on first class flights, oftentimes they are not served for a variety of reasons and mitigating circumstances. Because of the expansive list of variables, most airlines don’t mention a pre-departure drink as one of their first or business class services, in case the commitment can’t be fulfilled. On one recent flight my flight was delayed at the gate for mechanical reasons for 30 minutes and the flight attendant still refused to offer pre-departure drinks, which made me curious to see what the actual policy is, so  I tweeted @Americanair:

American Airlines explained that drinks are served "when operationally possible."

American Airlines explained that drinks are served “when operationally possible.”

Their polite but somewhat vague reply prompted me to investigate further, and I found some interesting insight from flight attendant Heather Poole on her Galley Gossip blog. Reasons why you may miss out on your complimentary cocktail or champagne before take-off include:

  • The flight is running late and the service would cause further delays.
  • Depending on the layout of the plane, the position of the boarding door may mean that passengers would not be able to get to the economy section if a drink service was being carried out.
  • Laws regarding alcohol in the country you are either flying too or from when traveling internationally could mean that drinks cannot be served. Even while flying domestically, some states (especially in the South) don’t allow alcohol to be served before noon on Sundays.
  • Staff may be busy checking emergency equipment, hanging up coats, or getting passengers seated. This is increasingly becoming an issue after staff cutbacks mean that there literally aren’t always enough hands on deck to do everything.
  • FAA rules cite that all the overhead bins have to be closed before take-off, and that takes precedence over serving drinks.
  • The catering truck could be delayed and then there would be nothing to serve.
  • Even if the catering carts are loaded, they still need to be organized to make sure everything is in order for the service during the flight, which could mean that pre-departure beverages are then sacrificed.
Delta lie-flat BusinessElite cabin

On premium routes such as JFK-LAX, you’ll be offered an enhanced meal selection.

While the serving of pre-departure drinks depends on all of the points mentioned, here are the policies for the major airlines when it comes to meal service during domestic flights in first class.


American Airlines offers chef-driven meals in First Class on flights over 2 hours that operate within traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner times. On flights greater than 2.5 hours that fall outside of a traditional meal time, a snack service will be provided. When it comes to pre-departure beverages, it it suppose to be a policy on domestic flights, but as I said above, I’ve found it to be hit or miss lately and it depends on operational factors.

American tries to offer chef-driven meals on-board their flights.

American Airlines tries to offer chef-driven meals on-board their flights.

Some examples of their meals include:

Non-Transcontinental Domestic Menu Examples

  • Buffalo chicken salad garnished with bleu cheese
  • Stuffed pasta shells with roasted sundried tomatoes and Pomodoro sauce

Transcontinental Menu Examples

  • Grilled salmon with lemon caper sauce served over orzo with a side of grilled root vegetables
  • Grilled beef filet, topped with wild mushroom ragout and merlot sauce, served with roasted vegetables

Even on transcontinental flights, the options depend on departure time, and for red-eyes and late-night departures, usually a lighter snack selection is served.


Delta offers a pre-departure drink on all their domestic flights. Beer, wine, cocktails, you name it – if they have it on-board it’s offered as an option. Delta’s First Class Meal Service is based on distance as well as departure time. Here are the offerings based on distance:

Delta serves meals onboard their flights that are greater than 900 miles.

Delta serves meals on-board their flights that are greater than 900 miles.

0-250 Miles (up to 1 hour): Complimentary snacks include peanuts, pretzels or Biscoff cookies.

251-899 Miles (1 to 2 hours): Morning flights (departures 05:00-09:45) offer just complimentary snacks such as peanuts, pretzels, Biscoff cookies, biscotti, bananas, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and Quaker Oats chewy granola bars. All other flights offer peanuts, pretzels, apples, Twix, Toblerone, Sun Chips and Walkers shortbread cookies.

900-1,499 Miles (approximately 2-3.5 hours): A meal will be served during meal times, in addition to the snack selection.

More than 1,500 Miles (3.5 hours +): A meal will be served in addition to a snack selection.

Flights between New York (JFK) and Los Angeles and San Francisco:
The BusinessElite dining experience includes a three-course menu designed by Chef Michael Chiarello. His menu selections include an antipasto plate, entrée and dessert course, featuring fine cheeses and gelato.

Alaska, Hawaii and International Flights: You’ll be served a meal on select Alaska and Hawaii flights (based on flight times).

US Airways

US Airways offers a pre-departure drink on all their domestic flights, however when it comes to implementation, sometimes it doesn’t happen, so just keep that in mind.

US Airways offers a meal on board flights greater then 3.5 hours.

US Airways offers a meal on board flights greater then 3.5 hours.

US Airways meals are based on flight times as well as the departure time.

Less than 1.5 hours: Snacks include a Biscoff sweet biscuit or savory cocktail mix.

1.5 – 3.5 hours: A new upgraded snack basket with specialty snacks with be offered.

3.5+ hours: More substantial meals and a larger selection of vegetarian-friendly dishes.

Breakfast (5 am – 9 am): Includes a choice of 2 hot entrees, or a lighter dish like yogurt and granola served with a warm biscuit and fresh fruit.

Lunch (9:01 am – 3 pm): Starts with a fresh salad and an appetizer,  a hot entrée such as roasted teriyaki chicken breast and finishes with a dessert.

Dinner (3:01 pm – 8 pm): Includes a fresh salad, appetizer, hot entrée such as braised short beef rib with red-skin mashed potatoes, and a dessert like cheesecake.

Snack Basket offerings include: Snyder’s Pretzels, Boulder Canyon Kettle Chips, Emerald Walnuts & Almonds, Chocobillys Chocolate Chunk Cookies, Nature’s Bakery Whole Wheat Fig Bar or Nonni’s Biscotti.


United offers meals based on flight distance.

United offers meals based on flight distance.

United meals are primarily based on distance like those of Delta and US Airways. When it comes to pre-departure beverages, they do offer customers a choice of what they would like to drink while on the ground, and it clearly states that on their website. Options can typically include water, juice, sodas and a choice of beer, wine and even cocktails depending on the departure time.

Less than 220 miles (approximately 1 hour or less): Biscoff cookies or pretzels served with the beverage of your choice.

220–699 miles (approximately 1–2 hours): Warmed- up all-natural breakfast scones or a selection of snacks and fresh fruit.

700–2,299 miles (approximately 2–5 hours): A full meal service during traditional meal times or a lighter snack in between traditional meal times.

Greater than 2,300 miles (approximately 5 hours or longer): A full meal service followed by a pre-arrival snack or a lighter snack on late-night departures followed by a pre-arrival warm scone.

On United Express flights longer than 700 miles (approximately two hours), United First and United Business customers receive complimentary snackboxes featuring high-quality, brand-name foods.

So the options seem pretty standard across the board with full meals being served only on longer flights that operate during traditional meal times, and few clear answers on the pre-departure beverage policy. It seems like the legacy carriers do still want to give their premium passengers a nice pre-flight send off, but that more and more operations issues, turnaround times, and galley limitations cut into the service.

But I’m curious to hear what your recent experiences with it have been? Were you given a pre-departure drink or did you have to wait until you were airborne to toast?

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Guest

    United Express’ snack box in F is a poor substitute for the trayed meals served on DL’s commuter jets. Actually, the soft product on DL Connection is pretty much indistinguishable from mainline – except that you will never get a hot meal. Also, UA – why the plastic cups in F on your commuters?

  • Lantean

    So the EWR-HNL flight doesn’t have a lunch and a dinner? Only 1 meal and a snack or 11 hours???
    Do the give out amenity kits on those flights at least?

  • Tyler Brown

    While the first class experience may be improving, it can’t be refuted that the economy (99%) experience has worsened. Less seat pitch, less free checked bags, zero meals, etc.

    I’m waiting for them to start charging for water.

  • Michael

    I think the delta distance break points are just guidelines because I do ATL-LGA regularly and if the flight is during regular meal times they serve a meal. And that is over 100 miles less than their meal cutoff distance

  • WS

    I fly almost exclusively American from DFW. Pre-flight drinks have essentially disappeared in my experience. Continue to love TPG but DFW is rarely mentioned.

  • jimmy j

    I am in FC right now on 1308 SEA to DFW – so I just asked the flight attendant her take on it, and her response made sense to me. On larger planes 757-67-777 etc, there are usually two FA in FC and this allows them more ability to serve drinks (im on 757 and we had drinks pre-departure AND pulled back from gate 10 mins early). She said on MD80-and some shorter flights on 737 where there is only 1 FA sometimes they just can’t do it because of time – and duties. She said that she ALWAYS will honor requests for pre-departure drinks…usually just water or juice.

  • steve

    I just flew domestic first class on Delta. ATL-PHL.
    No more Sunchips!!!

  • Nick

    On United at least, the definition of “traditional meal times” is ridiculous. Flights departing after 7p.m. are not subject to dinner service in first class but rather a “snack.” Not sure under what definition other than an 80 year old’s in Boca Raton that 7:01pm is considered a nontraditional meal time.

  • BenTraveling

    If I’m not mistaken, Delta has a similar BusinessElite dining experience for flights from JFK to SEA as well. In successful weeks I flew domestic first from ATL-SEA and then JFK-SEA, and the dining experience was very different. The service on the 767-300ER from JFK-SEA this weekend was very similar to the service I had on Delta’s Pink Plane 767-400ER from LHR-DTW in May 2012.

  • Matt C.

    Good to know, thanks Ben. I’m going across from SEA-ATL on the 767-300 for Christmas, maybe in the spring I’ll go SEA-JFK (esp. if they have the flat bed seats by then!).

  • iahphx

    The first class experience has also worsened for most passengers. The nice food and drink that is the basis for this thread is generally confined to int’l flights. The experience has materially worsened for most domestic FC flights. Sometimes you don’t get anything more than a drink and, when you do get food, it’s often very simple and cheap.

  • AMPfromBNA

    I was upset too! Yet switched to fritos. FA said they are getting tons of complaints.

  • tjh8402

    I had a bad experience in UA in first class. I was on a relatively long (MCO-DEN) flight that left pretty early in the morning (around 7:30). When they got to me, they were out of hot breakfasts. All they had were cereal and pastries. I had not gotten breakfast beforehand, expecting to be served on the plane. Needless to say, I was not happy. At least I found good food at DEN.

  • BenTraveling

    I had a flat bed seat on DL 161 from JFK-SEA this past Saturday on an 767-300ER. In conjunction with the BusinessElite food service, a Westin pillow & blanket, and noise canceling headphones, it was easily my best experience in Delta domestic first class.

  • Paddy

    I have found Continental–not UAL– to serve pre departure beverages in first, all the time. I have found AA to serve beverages 50% of the time.

  • Roe

    Don’t forget AirTran…they still serve pre-departure beverages when time allows.

  • Sam

    ATL-LGA/JFK is a special route that gets meal service. ORD-JFK/LGA is also one. Other than those and maybe a very few others, there aren’t many exceptions.

  • M

    How about meal service on AA regional jets?

  • Geri B

    United – Flew from Denver to Calgary, Canada (their very small planes) & Calgary, Canada to San Francisco (also, small plane) First Class both ways & was only given a snack box (hummus, crakers, etc.) regardless of the hour. Seats have to be THE MOST UNCOMFORTABLE of any airline..

  • Dick A.

    Recent First red eye on US Air from LIH to PHX, breakfast was a box of granola a fruit cup and a small bag of cinnibon bites, no milk or yogurt available, served but some very ungracious old crones. Also the in flight movie didn’t function.I much prefer Alaska, or Hawaiian.

  • Agent X

    Delta also places an individual bottle of water at every First Class seat prior to boarding.

  • Dan

    I find AA to have both the best service and food in domestic first class. Lately, it feels like their food has gotten much better (ordering online helps as well). A few weeks ago, I flew first on Delta from MBJ to ATL and the meal was almost inedible. I’m EXP on AA (so I may be biased), but also Gold on UA.

  • pdd3517

    On west coast to east coast Red Eyes, US Air First Class provides a “continental breakfast box”. This includes a croissant, almond butter/jelly, a granola type snack, and a drinkable yogurt. It’s okay…usually too cold (the croissant) to eat when you get it

  • Haley

    United no longer serves meals or even offers snacks (complimentary, or heaven forbid, for purchase) on domestic first class flights less than 3 hours…even when the flight is DURING “normal” meal hours.

  • Chas

    Though not always consistent, AA has the best meal service and attention to passengers in 1st. Based on my experience US Air has the poorest! I’m hoping the AA service and meals wins in the merger.

  • Andrew

    I always fly Delta. I noticed when the flights are full, sometimes you won’t be served a pre-departure beverage. However, unlike American Airlines, if you ask the flight attendant for a drink they will gladly serve you one. Also with Delta the distance of the flight and time of the flight determines if you will be served a meal. My only complaint with Delta is that they did not honor my request for my daughter to be served a children’s meal.

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