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U.S. Airlines Vie for Loyalty With Resumption of Coach-Class Free Food

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American Airlines said Tuesday it will bring meals back to coach on two key transcontinental routes, but it stopped short of matching Delta Air Lines, Which by next month will be serving free food on a dozen routes.

American will serve food only on two of the most competitive routes in the domestic market — New York to San Francisco and New York to Los Angeles. The two routes are served frequently by American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, Virgin America, and JetBlue Airways, and they are strategically important for all of the carriers. Previously, the airlines had invested in new business class seats and other amenities for premium passengers, but now many are improving the coach experience, too.

American will offer food on its specially configured Airbus A321Ts starting May 1. The planes have 10 first class seats, 10 business class seats, and 72 economy class seats. Flights will feature a continental breakfast or a boxed meal with a sandwich wrap, chips, and a dessert. American will also have a vegetarian option, and a fruit and cheese plate.

American did not say why it will not fully match Delta’s program. Delta will have free meals on several routes that compete with American, including Boston to Los Angeles, Washington Reagan to Los Angeles, and New York JFK to San Diego and Seattle. An American spokeswoman said the airline is focused only on the two New York–California routes for now.

Often, other airlines copy these types of moves, though that’s far from certain. On Tuesday, an Alaska Airlines representative said the company, which owns Virgin America, has no plans to change its policies. Officials from United and JetBlue did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Serving free food has a cost, but in an interview with skift last month, Lisa Bauer, Delta’s vice president for onboard services, said the airline has learned customer satisfaction scores increase significantly when food is served. After delta tested free meals last year on some flights, it saw “a very nice double digit increase” in scores “that we were all very thrilled with,” she said.

Before Delta reintroduced food on the New York–Los Angeles and New York–San Francisco routes on March 1 — the other 10 routes begin in April — no U.S. airline had regularly served free meals within the continental U.S. since Continental Airlines removed them in 2010.

#FACTS In 1987 American Airlines saved $40,000 by removing 1 olive from each salad served in first class

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