Airline spending on food continues to drop


United Airlines and Virgin America recently announced the addition of new menu items, including turkey and Swiss cheese on a cranberry baguette, chicken and mozzarella on tomato focaccia and a soy-and-ginger-marinated salmon salad.

But the nation’s airlines still spend much less money on passenger food than they did before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a catastrophic event that led to a decade of financial hardship for the airline industry.

In 2001, the nation’s airlines spent an average of $4.79 per passenger on food, compared with $3.62 per passenger in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The average includes all money spent by the nation’s major airlines for food sold to travelers in coach and meals offered free in first and business class.


The drop in spending reflects the airline industry’s efforts to cut costs in tough economic times, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group.

Over the last few years, airlines have stopped offering free meals to most economy-class passengers and also reduced the quality of the meals served to premium-class fliers, he said.

“Most U.S. airlines offer food on par with Grade B dinners,” he said. “You’ll have a better meal at Denny’s than you’ll have at most airlines.”

Not so, said a United Airlines spokesman, who ranked the quality and selection of food on United higher today than in 2001.

“You can quote me,” said United’s Rahsaan Johnson.

To read more about travel, tourism and the airline industry, follow me on Twitter at @hugomartin.