- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

PHOENIX (AP) Airline passengers have long used the boxed meals served on flights as a kind of entertainment, a source of jokes and small talk with fellow passengers. But are they willing to pay for it?
America West Airlines is prepared to find out. In a move that might prompt other cash-strapped airlines to follow suit, the nation's eighth-largest carrier will test a "Buy on Board" program starting Monday that allows passengers to buy meals costing from $3 to $10.
The meals initially will be sold on about a dozen flights per day for three weeks. If the experiment proves successful, America West may begin selling meals on all flights longer than 2 hours, said spokeswoman Janice Monahan.
The choices will include a $3 snack box packed with cheese, crackers, nuts, beef jerky and cookies or ice cream. More expensive meals, up to the $10 chicken Kiev with side dishes and dessert, will be offered.
"The program is designed to offset the cost of providing food, not to make a profit," Ms. Monahan said. "We're trying to meet customer needs without raising ticket prices."
America West reported its eighth straight quarterly loss in the fall.
Some airlines are considering similar meal programs. Northwest Airlines spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said the carrier is studying the idea of selling food aboard its flights.
Julie King, a spokeswoman for Continental Airlines, said the company is reviewing the idea and is "figuring out what customers value and are willing to pay for."
Other airlines, including Southwest, United, Delta and American, said yesterday they have no immediate plans to begin selling food.
Southwest Airlines said it does not anticipate changing its offering of peanuts and drinks. "The majority of our passengers know that if they're going to fly Southwest and they're hungry, they probably should grab McDonald's before the flight," spokeswoman Angela Vargo said.
American Airlines spokeswoman Tara Batem said the carrier looked into the idea of selling food but determined it would be less expensive to continue its current food service, which cost the company $778 million in 2001.
Airline consultant Michael Boyd said America West should be given credit for trying to do things differently, but in the end, he doesn't think passengers will applaud the effort.
"It's a noble, worthwhile experiment," he said. "But I question whether it might send the wrong message and cheapen the experience."
Mr. Boyd said some airlines may jump at the chance to give away more food to attract America West customers.
Others said the effort could improve airplane food.
"When you start selling something, it's got to be better," said industry analyst Terry Trippler.
This is not the first time America West has tinkered with in-flight meals. After the September 11 attacks, the airline discontinued meals on all flights until December 2001, and currently serves meals only on longer flights.

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