Bye-Bye, Free Coach Food on Continental

Last Updated Mar 17, 2010 3:43 AM EDT

It's the end of an era -- an era when airlines would compete for customers by offering them edibles on long plane journeys, foreign or domestic, and passengers would wait eagerly for salted nuts, soggy sandwiches and lackluster entrees. Now the last of the big airlines, Houston-based Continental, is taking free food off of the menu and replacing it with items for sale April 1. (No, it's not April Fool!) The risk of list customers is offset by hopes of raising $35 million in revenue.

"We are improving our economy meal service with a high-quality, industry-leading food-for-purchase program that is consistent with the strong brand image and high service standards for which our customers recognize us," said Jim Compton, executive vice president for Continental. "Our traditional free-food model has served us well for many years, but we need to change to reflect today's market and customer preferences."

Really? I thought today's market and customer preferences -- especially in a recession -- would be for a decent snack, more legroom and comfort, not paying $10 for a sandwich (or $59 for an extra 7 inches of legroom.) Haven't airlines nickeled-and-dimed their customers enough to cause some loss of market share?

Some say that in previous eras, plane flights were still considered luxury, and an average $300 round-trip ticket in 1970 would be the equivalent of $1,600 in today's market. That level of luxury can't be created for the same price and just after 9/11 most airlines began phasing out main cabin meals. Continental, the nation's No. 4 carrier, also mentioned that all of its main competition now charges for economy meals -- and that if they all jumped off a cliff, Continental would, too.

Julius Maldutis, an airline industry analyst, said Continental charging for food comes just as travelers are wearying of added fees and other analysts wondered if cutting freebies actually costs more by losing customers rather than keeping them.

Continental expects to gain $35 million from cutting out coach food. Soft drinks and meager snacks like peanuts or pretzels will still be complimentary, just like business and first-class meals.

Scott McCartney claims that the food will be fresher and tastier, but for $10 it would have to be a pretty darn good sandwich. And why wouldn't passengers buy a $5 sandwich at the terminal instead? Aren't airlines competing with the terminal retail businesses at this point?

Apparently they already are, because Continental also owns Chelsea Food Services, which operates flight kitchen in five cities. About 2,300 workers provide more than 31 million meals a year and Continental also buys food from vendors at other airports around the world. Aside from preparing meals for Continental, Chelsea also serves up business- and first-class fare for other carriers, both foreign and domestic. (So for those of you who joke that all airplane food tastes the same, well, now you know.)

So, say goodbye to those tiny packets of Babybel cheese, infant-size breakfast yogurts, wilted iceberg and limp bread, they will be missed.

Photo: mpieracci