Delta’s snacks have also gotten an overhaul, moving on from “40 years of unbranded peanuts and pretzels,” said Lisa Bauer, Delta’s vice president for onboard service, to a variety that includes sweet, salty, healthy and gluten-free choices that will be rotated every six months.
Adam Lathram, a health technology entrepreneur from New York, said the complimentary turkey waffle sandwich he was served on a Delta flight from New York to Seattle was a nice surprise. “Knowing they offer food on cross-country flights is even more of a reason to fly with Delta,” he said. “Can’t say I’d pay more for it, but I certainly appreciate it.”
The company tried to replicate what the customers would naturally choose for themselves “if they weren’t at 35,000 feet,” Ms. Bauer said. And that includes local and seasonal foods.
American Airlines introduced complimentary main cabin meals in May to customers flying between Los Angeles or San Francisco, and Kennedy International Airport in New York. Depending on the time of day, customers will be offered a continental breakfast or a sandwich wrap, chips and dessert. The menu also includes a vegetarian option and a fruit and cheese plate.
United Airlines does not plan to bring back free meals, said Jonathan Guerin, an airline spokesman, but did start offering a free snack last year to travelers in economy class on domestic and Latin American flights.
Airlines pay special attention to the amenities they offer on routes popular with business fliers because they are in fierce competition for those high-paying customers, Mr. Leff said. “The experience on the flight does matter and will influence their decision-making on future flights,” he said.
Expedia, as an airline partner, is researching the best way to spread word about the new free meals to customers.
“Lots of people travel just a few times a year so they don’t even know free meals are coming back on some flights,” said Scott Jones, vice president for design and user experience at Expedia. “And if you are traveling with a family of five, that could make a difference in your decision.”
Expedia’s flight search results currently note if flights have food for purchase or if the meals are complimentary. Websites like SeatGuru and Routehappy can also help customers figure out if their flights will include Wi-Fi, meals or other amenities.
Despite some well-publicized debacles, as when a passenger was dragged from an overbooked United flight, satisfaction with airlines has been inching up. That is the finding of the annual study by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which provides data on consumer satisfaction with the quality of products and services in 43 industries. Low prices have been an important factor, according to the report, but the airlines have been improving in a variety of areas. They are increasing their free in-flight offerings like Wi-Fi, entertainment and power outlets, sending alerts to notify fliers of delays, streamlining the check-in process via phone app or kiosk, and losing fewer bags.
Still, “air travel does not generate much passenger satisfaction compared to other consumption activities,” according to the report, which notes seat comfort as the biggest remaining problem.
In an industry that often seems to adopt a “me, too” attitude, free meals seem to be an exception, for now. “For short-haul flights from London to Europe, we know that for customers booking an economy flight, cost and convenience are the important elements to them, whereas catering is not,” said Caroline Niven, vice president for communications for British Airlines.
The company has moved to a buy-on-board model for short-haul flights from London to the rest of Europe. “This allows us to offer superior-quality products for those who want it,” Ms. Niven said, “rather than basic food for everyone, irrespective of whether they want it or not.”
Alaska Airlines said it was not planning to offer free meals on flights on Alaska Airlines or its newly acquired carrier, Virgin America. According to the company’s research, food and beverage “is not a key factor” for fliers. They are most concerned with on-time ratings, customer service track record and mileage plan offerings.
“We have a winning formula that customers like,” said a spokeswoman, Ann Johnson, citing the fact that Alaska Airlines has ranked highest among the large North American carriers in customer satisfaction in the last 10 years of reports by the research firm J. D. Power.
Ms. Bauer of Delta said a free meal alone might not change a customer’s mind. But she said she hoped that given a package of amenities and service, a customer faced with two flights might choose the one run by Delta, even if it costs a little more.