Air Transport World

Hope for the hungry.

Bolstered by evidence that frequent fliers' choices are influenced by quality of food, airlines are dishing up the meals again

The food that began disappearing from U.S. domestic flights during the cost-cutting orgy of the early 1990s finally is beginning to make its way back on board. And the trickle could become a flood, especially if the world's largest airline caterer is able to convince carriers that meals really do influence passenger preference.

With a shove from the LSG-Sky Chefs partnership's Million-Dollar Challenge, United began improving both the quality and quantity of its food offerings in 1997, says Larry DeShon, director-onboard service. Although he is waiting to share the results of the experiment until this month's Inflight Food Service Assn. conference (see box), he says the improvement in customer satisfaction ratings has been "impressive."

And other airlines have taken notice. Delta, which continued its cutbacks in 1997, was preparing to announce a new program at this writing that reportedly will include an expansion of hot-meal service and extension of food offerings to shorter flight segments.

American, which admittedly prefers to be a follower rather than a setter of trends, introduced hot sandwiches and "wraps" in its domestic coach cabins last fall and put more food, such as full-sized rather than half-sized sandwiches, into the carry-on Bistro bags it offers on flights of 2-3 hr.

The trend toward more food was just beginning to show up in the first nine months of 1997 (see tables). Among the network carriers, per-passenger expenditures were up at Continental, United and US Airways; in 1996, only Continental reported an increase in per-passenger costs as it accelerated its dramatic turnaround from worst to near first in passenger service.

In a second effort to entice U.S. airlines to give their domestic passengers more food--and their caterers more business--LSG-Sky Chefs recently commissioned a national survey of frequent fliers that Helmut Woelki, chairman and CEO of LSG Lufthansa Service Holding, says indicates that carriers "have a real opportunity to increase passenger satisfaction with food service."

Additionally, 76% of those surveyed felt that food service was important on flights of 3 hr. or more, while 34% extended that to flights of less than 2 1/2 hr. And 31% ranked food service as the most important reason they prefer a foreign airline, while only 12% felt the same way about a U.S. airline. The survey also revealed a desire for better, healthier, more diverse food."

Some of the findings were that 56% of the most frequent fliers would make an effort to fly an airline for which food service was rated superior; 46% of this segment would even pay more for excellent airline cuisine," and 32% of respondents would arrange their travel schedules to fly an airline with superior food service. …

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