When Airlines Compete on Product, Everybody Wins

From dirt-cheap fares to free food, is air travel great again?

February 21, 2017 9:00 am

What would it take to get you to fly Delta? 

A free wrap? Perhaps a cheese plate? 

Because that’s what’s now on board a dozen Delta flights from JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco. After a limited trial last fall, the airline has announced the resumption of free meal service in its economy class on those select routes. Even — and this we can barely believe — in their new Basic Economy seats. (As the airline puts it, “nose to tail.” Guess which end is the tail.) We should note that Delta’s BE fares are less restrictive than those at the other majors in other ways, as well: unlike American and United, they offer use of the overhead compartments, for instance. Apparently cheese plates, like recirculated air, are open to all, at least at Delta. 

The move makes Delta the only major carrier to offer free meals on-board. Fliers will get a choice of “Mesquite-Smoked Turkey Combo, Luvo Mediterranean Whole Grain Veggie Wrap, or fruit and cheese plate”; morning flights will supply a “Honey Maple Breakfast Sandwich, Luvo Breakfast Medley or fruit and cheese plate.” Not only is Delta the only major to do so — it’s the first major to supply free meals since March 2010, when the now-defunct carrier Continental cleared its last dinner tray. (United swallowed Continental whole in 2012.) 

Why treat us to such a delectable array of turkey combos and cheese plates?

Obviously, it’s not a purely altruistic move. With mind-boggling profits in play, “airlines are starting to take liberties and compete more aggressively on product,” according to Forbes — especially on the lucrative New York-California routes. Consider the new Polaris business suite from United, which debuted last week (not coincidentally, on the Newark to SFO route), or JetBlue’s fleet-wide free wifi, announced in January. Now, fliers get to decide which tack to reward: treats for biz-class passengers, snacks and digital upgrades for the middle class, and lower Basic Economy fares for pax without bags.

For once, it seems, some of the spoils will trickle down to the hoi polloi.


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