October 2009

From the Editor

By: Anthony Dias Blue
Welcome to the Unfriendly Skies

The “legacy” domestic airlines are whining about the downturn in Business Class and First Class bookings. Despite reductions in the number of flights, many front-of-the-plane seats are going unsold. Several factors are being cited as causes for this trend—tighter business flyer budgets, fewer vacationers, etc.—but I would also suggest that the dramatic cut back in services, especially as regards food and wine, has some impact as well.

I was stunned by a recent article in Travel & Leisure that showed what airlines spend per passenger on food, across all cabin classes. The dismal numbers range from $5.83 at United to $1.12 at US Airways. What’s spent on wine and spirits is considerably less. Having had the dubious pleasure of selecting wines for a large domestic carrier in the halcyon days before 9/11, I can report that, even then, $40 or less per case was the usual spend for First Class wines.

Can you blame anyone for not wanting to spend three times or more for First Class just for a couple of glasses of $2 wine and a tasteless mini-meal? Yes, the seats are a few inches wider, but the service isn’t any better. You can actually eat better in coach if you use a small amount of the money you save and buy a nice deli sandwich or a salad before you get on the plane.
Unfortunately you can’t bring your own wine or spirits onto the plane thanks to the inane TSA ban on liquids. (Actually, I have had success stashing 50 ml. bottles of good scotch in my toiletries bag, but don’t tell anyone.) If I feel I have to have a drink, I always opt for spirits since most of the wines are questionable at best.

Of course, it’s a different story on international flights. On those routes, the competition raises the bar and our domestic carriers have to follow suit, but it’s still a rather half-hearted effort. They really don’t match the level of quality a top foreign carrier can deliver. For sixteen years I helped select the wines for Singapore Airlines. Currently this carrier, which consistently wins awards for its service, spends $60 per passenger on food and wine in First Class. As a result, SIA’s First Class cabin is usually full, and mostly with paying customers.

Maybe if our domestic airlines were to spend $5 or $10 more per customer on food and beverage, they might be able to sell more premium tickets. Perhaps they would find that creating a better product is a more effective way to move toward profitability than cutting costs to the bone. It would be worth at try, wouldn’t it?

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