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?