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First Class Dining Policies of the Major Domestic Airlines

by on August 27, 2014 · 25 comments

in Airline Industry, American, Delta, United, US Airways

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Over the last few years – and even in recent weeks - major domestic airlines have been attempting to up their First Class dining game, achieving varying degrees of success. With food, wine and cocktail and service options going through some changes this fall, I thought it was a good time to take a look at the landscape of First Class dining policies aboard the major domestic airlines: American, US Airways, Delta and United.

Each of these airlines offers a range of dining options depending on the distance and duration of the flight, and American, US Airways and United are instituting the biggest changes. All these carriers have similar official policies of serving pre-departure beverages prior to takeoff in First Class (and in the case of American, US Airways and United, warm nuts as well), but be aware that this service can be affected by operational factors like the need to facilitate boarding access or staff being needed elsewhere on the plane.

American's First Class dining service includes full meals on flights longer than

American will now serve full meals in First Class on flights over 2 hours and 45 minutes long.

American & US Airways

As these two carriers continue to merge, their First Class meal service will begin to merge as well. Both carriers recently announced that as of September 1, 2014, they’ll be scaling back their First Class meal service and switching from full meals to snacks on flights of 2 hours and 45 minutes or less.

As an American Airlines Platinum elite, I’ve had several opportunities to try the cuisine in American’s premium classes, and I’ve rarely been impressed – and sometimes, as in the case of my transcon first class flight from LAX to JFK, I’ve been downright disappointed. I’ve had limited personal experience with US Airways’ First Class, but I enjoyed the food in the carrier’s Envoy (Business) Class on a recent transatlantic flight from Philadelphia to Athens. It will be interesting to see if the two carriers can find an appetizing middle ground in the blending of their First Class service.

Each carrier will offer the following First Class meal service and options between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., listed by flight time and distance:

American Airlines options, per flight times/distance:

  • Less than 1 hour: Packaged snacks (e.g., fig bars, cookies or pretzels)
  • 1:00 to 2:45:  Snack basket with choices that include fresh fruit and sandwiches
  • 2:45 to 3:30: Warm nuts and beverage service, as well as three-course meal service with a cookie for dessert
  • 3:30 to 4:30: Warm nuts and beverage service, and your meal service will include cake for dessert
  • 4:30 +: Warm nuts and beverage service, and your meal service will also include a choice of ice cream or a fruit-and-cheese plate for dessert, as well as pre-arrival snacks.

For the time being, American will still offer its usual three-course meal service on some flights that are less than 2 hours and 45 minutes long, such as Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD), and ORD to New York’s LaGuardia (LGA) and JFK airports. You’ll also continue to have the option to reserve your choice of entree up to 30 days in advance of your First Class (or Business Class) flight.

American’s wine list was created by winemaker Ken Chase, and the First Class selections offered on North American flights include a Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc from the Napa Valley, an Italian Prosecco and a Chilean Malbec. 

US Airways’ options, per flight time/distance:

  • Up to 699 miles (under 2 hours): Packaged snacks (e.g., fig bars, cookies or pretzels)
  • 700-999 miles (2:00 to 2:45): Snack basket with choices that include fresh fruit and sandwiches
  • 1,000-1,298 miles (2:45 to 3:30): Warm nuts and beverage service, as well as three-course meal service with a cookie for dessert
  • 1,299-2,200 miles (3:30 to 4:30): Warm nuts and beverage service, and your meal service will include cake for dessert
  • 2,200 miles+ (4:30+): Warm nuts and beverage service, and your meal service will also include a choice of ice cream or a fruit-and-cheese plate for dessert.

Flights between Hawaii and either Dallas (DFW) or Chicago (ORD) will also include a custom sundae and pre-arrival snacks.

The wines generally offered in First Class on US Airways’ North American flights are Two Tone Farm Merlot from California’s Napa Valley and Labrune Chardonnay Vine de France.

Delta

Delta serves meals in First Class for flights over 2 hours and 900 miles.

Delta

Amidst a slew of negative changes to their Skymiles frequent flyer program, Delta’s First Class dining program appears to be holding steady, though there are rumors that they’ll be enhancing their offering sometime this fall (perhaps due to United’s recent up-gauge of first class food?).

For most of Delta’s North American flights, the First Class meal menu was designed by Napa Valley-based chef and restaurateur Michael Chiarello, who focuses on a blend of Southern Italian and northern California cuisine. His menus include antipasto plates, different flavors of gelato, and cheeses that often hail from California wine country. Aboard flights to and from Mexico, Delta’s First Class menu was created by Miami-based and James Beard-award-winning chef and restaurateur Michelle Bernstein, who is known for highlighting Latin flavors. Delta’s First Class wine program was designed by Napa-based master sommelier Andrea Robinson.

Delta’s First class snack and meal service is based on the following flight distances/lengths:

  • Up to 250 miles (up to 1 hour): Light snacks (e.g., peanuts, pretzels and cookies)
  • 251-899 miles (1 to 2 hours): Morning flights (departures between 5-9:45 a.m.) offer the same light snacks as shorter flights, as well as heartier offerings like bananas, packaged muffins, and granola bars. Flights at other times offer an array of snacks that include nuts, apples, candy bars, packaged chips and cookies.
  • 900-1,499 miles (2 to 3:30): A three-course meal will be served during meal times, in addition to the snack selection.
  • 1,500 miles+ (3:30+): A three-course meal with several entree selections and expanded dessert options will be served, in addition to a snack selection.
United is enhancing their first class meals on domestic flights.

United is enhancing their First Class meals on domestic flights.

United

Ever since its merger with Continental, United has been criticized by its most loyal customers for operational missteps, poor service, and lately, switching their MileagePlus frequent flyer program to a revenue-based system. In what appears to be a bid to win back the hearts of premium customers, now through February 2015, United will be expanding its First Class meal service on North American flights that are 2 hours and 700 miles or longer, and adding Prosecco to its present red and white options. Aboard flights of less than 2 hours and 699 miles, United will continue to offer a selection of snacks (e.g., cookies or pretzels) and/or warm breakfast breads.

  • 700–2,299 miles (2 to 5 hours): These flights will still include full meal service during traditional meal times, or a lighter snack in between traditional meal times. Throughout September, the airline will begin to roll out four new entrée salad choices and eight new sandwich/wrap options in First Class (as well as Business Class) at lunch, dinner or both, depending on the length/distance of the flight. These new meal options will include an Asian-style noodle salad, prosciutto on tomato focaccia, a Thai-style chicken wrap, a Cobb salad wrap, and ham and Swiss on a pretzel baguette. The new entrees will be paired with a gluten-free soup, bread and a cookie, but note that not all of these options will be available on each flight.
  • 2,300 miles+ (5 hours+): On North American flights in this range, you’ll still receive full meal service (as well as pre-arrival snack service), but for dinner you’ll have enhanced pasta, chicken or beef options with newly designed recipes. During late-night departures, a light snack will be served, followed by a pre-arrival warm scone.

On United Express flights longer than 700 miles (and about 2 hours in length), United First and Business customers will receive snack boxes.

Between November, 2014 andFebruary, 2015, United will expand from snack service to full meal service on all of its shorter-haul flights. The airline will continue to offer full meals on flights that currently receive a full meal service in the following markets for flights of less than 900 miles: Chicago to/from Boston, Denver, New York/La Guardia and Newark; Denver to/from Houston Intercontinental and Los Angeles; and Newark to/from Atlanta.

Have you recently traveled throughout North America in First Class on a major domestic airline? Please share your experiences of the food service in the comments below. 

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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  • Chris

    What about Alaska Airlines? Those of us on the West coast certainly consider them a “major” airline.

  • Sam

    Totally agree with your assessment of food on American Airlines flights. The prepared food tastes bad and is very unhealthy. The only thing I ever eat is the cheese plate, and that is only available on longer (transcontinental) flights.

  • Raj Grover

    I just flew UA EWR-IAH-RTB roundtrip on First Class. This was not an upgrade – but tickets were bought in First Class weeks ahead. There is no choice of meals if one is vegetarian or Kosher. DUMB– REAL DUMB!

  • DubZ

    I had the exact meal as in the 1st picture this week on US going from ATL->PHX. Nothing to write home about, but at the same time I can’t recall the last time I even had a served meal on a domestic flight (just started getting upgrades here and there).

  • Marcel

    The United upping its choices is misleading, its just offering the selection they sell to economy for 7.99 for free on a plate to 1st.

  • Dee

    I fly Alaska weekly on a shorter length flight and the food in first class is fairly good. They do rotate about every six to eight weeks. When the food isn’t tasty they rework the

  • stevengcpa

    I don’t know that I would agree with respect to Delta. On a recent trip from LGA to MCO, I found the attention to detail in the food service itself to be kind of lacking. Most meals came out properly plated. My warm turkey pastrami sandwich came out in a napkin lined foil heating tray. Fruit and condiments were missing from the tray. Perhaps the crew was having an off day.

  • BubbaJoe123

    I’m always surprised about how much people focus on the food in first or business. I’ve never had a meal on a plane (and this includes Cathay First, Singapore long haul business, Lufthansa first, BA first, etc. etc.) that has been dramatically better than what I could have picked up in the airport for $15.
    Honestly, if any of those carriers had said “we’ll give you $50 in cash to skip the food on a transatlantic flight (or say $75 for a transpacific),” I’d take it in a heartbeat. For me (and I guess this is pretty much all my preference, it’s 99% hard product – how good is the seat?

  • http://LukeRB.com/ Luke Bornheimer

    For what it’s worth, you can input your dietary preferences in your United profile (for vegetarians, I recommend putting “Hindu”). Also, you can call up to 24 hours before the flight to request a Hindu (or other special meal) by phone. These meals tend to be much better than what is normally served.

  • AMPfromBNA

    Are delta red eyes and exception? LAX-ATL never serves a thing except the basic basket.

  • katyhild

    Last week I flew United First Class from AUS to ORD (approx. 975 mi) at 0830 and all I was offered (in addition to beverages) was a pitiful little snack box. No fruit. No warm bread. No nuts. Just FYI.

  • Chris

    United does not offer special meals on most domestic flights. Exceptions are Hawaii and P.S.

  • Tony

    What airport serves Caviar for $15? CX,SQ and LH complete meal service is well worth more then $15 and much better than what can be had at airports.

  • Tony

    Now was your flight on a mainline jet or a RJ? If you were served a snack box, then it was a RJ.. In the article it stated, ” On United Express flights longer than 700 miles (and about 2 hours in length), United First and Business customers will receive snack boxes.”

  • Tony

    sometime catering makes mistakes. I was a US flight out of STL last week, Dinner was served, but no plates were boarded.. The FA did a great job in figuring out what to do.

  • Tony

    Alaska use to serve incredible meals, not today… Alaska is right next to UA..

  • John

    Just had one of the cross country Chiarello Delta meals, and it was actually pretty good. I was impressed. However, on recent medium haul flights (e.g. LGA to Minneapolis – 3 hours, NY to Tampa etc) the Delta food was worse than a cheap TV dinner, and 1/4 of the cabin didn’t get the choice they wanted because they had a lot more of the lousier one. I’d rather have no meal than be insulted by having them give some people a choice and not others..so cheap of them. Oh and, on several recent Delta flights the white wine was served at room temperature (it was cheap over oaked Cali chardonnay anyway so I switched for the red). A flight attendant offered me ice for the white wine (huh?). Still prefer Delta but … really…

  • Raj Grover

    I have it in my profile and had it for years. I am United Elite Gold and I travel Trans-Pacific to HKG, NRT & SIN often. I get my vegetarian food on those flight which is pretty good. Luke is correct, UAL does not offer special meals on Domestic First Class.

  • jjflysalot

    “pre-departure beverages prior to takeoff in First Class (and in the case
    of American, US Airways and United, warm nuts as well), but be aware
    that this service can be affected by operational factors like the need
    to facilitate boarding access or staff being needed elsewhere on the
    plane.” In a word “lame”–how tough is it to at least put a bottle of water in the seat? And I’ve NEVER been offered nuts PRIOR to dept. Also, no dedicated FA in first class? Help with boarding elsewhere (in coach)–it’s not like FA’s are lifting a finger to help with bags–and I’m not saying they should–I’m just tired of being asked to do it as a passenger. Guess that last comment is more an editorial on “stupid” passengers not checking their bag of rocks…

  • flyguy123

    You have an error in your post about American.

    It is stated as “We serve meals in First and Business Class between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m.”, not 8-5 as you state.

  • renhelm

    I frequently fly LAS – SEA which is about 860 miles. On Alaska Airlines I get a meal on Delta just the basket

  • Brian

    CX meal service is worth its weight in gold. Not only does it keep me from being hungry somewhere over Russia, it’s so nice to break up the monotony.

  • Steve Case

    Catering can also screw up the deal. On a Delta flight from DTW-LHR, I wanted to have some Port with my dessert. It didn’t happen because catering failed to stock Port on the beverage cart. I wanted to go through the entire wine list that sommelier Andrea Robinson put together

  • patrick

    One thing missing on the Delta details with meals: Delta is the only airline that offers special meals on domestic flights. These include halal, Kosher, vegetarian, vegan, and others. They must be ordered 24 hours or more in advance. Please correct me if any other airlines do this for flights within the US (not international flights).

  • Paul Bruni

    I recently flew from EWR to FLL on an airbus A320 on a FC domestic flight and wish to review the breakfast meal which seems to be overlooked here. I’m going to guess United might have decided to ‘step up’ the breakfast as well as lunch and dinner since I noticed they replaced the ‘hot’ meal with a French croissant instead of the old ‘egg mcmuffin”. My seat-mate and I ordered the hot meal which seemed more appealing than the cold cereal selection and we were offered a croissant with egg, ham and cheese, yogurt and fresh fruit. First of all, the croissant was so hot I couldn’t even pick it up and the cheese had oozed out and melted on the plate. I had to use a fork and knife to eat it. The yogurt, which used to be served in a nice bowl was in the original container and the fresh fruit was so under-ripe, I couldn’t even get my fork into the honeydew! The highlight of the meal was when they came around with the hot cinnamon buns. I also noticed that United has eliminated the hot towel service on any FC flight I’ve been on recently. Are they trying to save money on the laundry? it’s a shame how they’ve downgraded domestic FC, I’d almost rather sit in economy plus and get a better meal at one of the airport concession stands. Granted, I paid for this upgrade, so I do notice these kinds of things.

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