Delta makes strategic competitive move with free meals on some flights

Travelers like free meals on longer flights. This statement is not hard to believe on its face, but Delta Air Lines has gone so far as to review data on the subject and use that information to justify bringing back free meals in economy class on 12 routes this spring.

Meals will be gratis on flights linking New York’s JFK airport with San Francisco and Los Angeles, California starting on 1 March 2017. Ten other mostly transcontinental routes will see the same service upgrade effective 24 April 2017.

In a statement today, Delta senior VP – In-Flight Service Allison Ausband acknowledged that the carrier observed a bump in passenger satisfaction when free meals were offered. “When we tested this concept, our customers loved it and appreciated it so we are implementing in our most strategic markets.”

Meal service will vary by time of day for the flight, according to the company:

Delta’s new meal program will feature a variety of options for customers depending on the time of day of their flight. In the morning, customers will have the option to choose between a Honey Maple Breakfast Sandwich, Luvo Breakfast Medley or fruit and cheese plate. During the day, customers will be able to select from a Mesquite-Smoked Turkey Combo, Luvo Mediterranean Whole Grain Veggie Wrap, or fruit and cheese plate. For overnight flights, customers will be offered a breakfast bar during the pre-arrival beverage service.

It seems like forever ago that complimentary meals disappeared from the domestic US market. Continental Airlines was the last holdout on that front, ending its “Meals at Mealtimes” campaign in 2010. At that time, the industry was desperate to cut costs at every turn. Profits are higher these days (though largely due to lower fuel costs) and the airlines are once again investing significant amounts of money in the passenger experience. Adding complimentary meals is another move in that direction.

It’s important to note that this initiative is not a wholesale return to complimentary meals on board. The routes chosen by Delta are limited and competitive. Alaska Airlines competes with Delta on flights from Seattle to Boston, JFK, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale and Raleigh-Durham, which are all getting the free food on board.

American Airlines and JetBlue are also squarely targeted with the other Delta routes in play, including JFK-San Diego and Los Angeles-Washington National (also an Alaska Airlines route).

Delta’s decision comes as JetBlue is set to expand its Mint service, offering a better premium cabin experience on several of these routes. Countering with free food may not draw the premium passengers but it could be an effective marketing tool at a time when JetBlue enjoys talkability for providing the best legroom in the domestic US skies.

Inflight service and amenities are a moving target and the industry has a history of making bold changes that overreach, only to later adjust and strike a balance. In this case offering free food on certain routes is a compelling and affordable competitive play that allows Delta to “give back” a little to some passengers. And it gives travelers some hope that the airlines are not simply focused on taking things away.

The full list of Delta routes receiving the upgraded meal service is: