- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

There may be a revolution afoot in airline food. At least in the way it’s served.

US Airways has started selling breakfast, lunch and dinner on long domestic flights as it struggles back from bankruptcy with new money-making strategies.

The Arlington airline is the first major carrier to sell meals to coach-class passengers; meals will no longer be included in the ticket. At least four other large airlines are test-marketing food sales. They promise that this time it will be edible.

The first sales have started on 56 daily flights out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the US Airways hub in Pittsburgh. Meals will be sold on flights of 700 miles or longer out of Washington Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International airports beginning July 1.

After July 1, US Airways In-Flight Cafes will operate on about 360 daily flights greater than 700 miles, roughly one-third of its domestic schedule. Shorter flights will offer the normal free beverage service.

“I think it’s a sign of the times,” said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group for airline passengers. “Between the airlines losing billions of dollars on the one hand and passengers demanding low fares, low fares, low fares, this is the compromise in the middle.”

US Airways officials say food sold through their In-Flight Cafe is a gourmet upgrade of standard airline food.

“We responded to our customers’ call for improved and expanded meal service,” Sherry Hendry, US Airways vice president of inflight services, said yesterday.

The chicken caesar sandwich meal includes rosemary chicken breast, shredded asiago cheese and romaine lettuce on a hoagie roll and Caesar sun-dried tomato dressing, a bowl of fruit, Kettle Classic potato chips, a chocolate chunk cookie and a bottle of water.

A “Blueberry Madness” breakfast includes a blueberry-walnut muffin, a honeydew melon and mandarin orange salad, yogurt with low-fat granola on the side and a bottle of water.

Breakfast costs $7. Lunch and dinner cost $10.

Even passengers who pass up the meals may benefit, airline officials say, because now passengers will only pay for the meals they want.

“When it’s only provided to those people who particularly want it, that’s a way to keep fares down,” Mr. Stempler said. “To some degree, it’s a fairer system.”

Some passengers agree. “As long as it’s a great improvement and worth paying for, it would be fine,” said Ada Quattrocchi, a Bethesda auto repair shop owner. She said she flies 25 to 30 times per year. “I’d rather pay for good quality than accept something of poor quality,” Mrs. Quattrocchi said. Sometimes she has been offered standard airline meals but refused to eat them. “I’d rather wait until I land,” she said.

Meals for first-class passengers will continue to be included in the price of their tickets.

US Airways started testing in-flight food sales in March.

“We’ve been very pleased with the response from both our customers and our flight crew,” spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said.

However, behind the marketing optimism lie hard financial realities airlines are trying to overcome.

Carriers are groping for ways to win back passengers during a weak economy and heightened security concerns. The competition has resulted in layoffs and loss of customer service, such as less legroom, fewer flight attendants per passenger and flights scheduled for efficiency rather than convenience of travelers.

“Shortly after September 11, we did start scaling back some of our services,” Miss Kudwa said. Among them were coach-class meals.

LSG Sky Chefs, an international airline catering company, prepares and delivers much of the food that US Airways and other airlines sell to passengers. The company is developing its menu under contracts with Einstein Brothers bagel stores, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide restaurants and D’Amico’s euro-style delis.

Like airlines, LSG Sky Chefs suffered through the airline industry’s downturn. “As meals were cut back, that impacted our business as well,” spokesman Larry Meltzer said.

The company’s search for business opportunities led officials to the concept of In-Flight Cafe food.

“There had to be a way to bring it back without having a significant cost impact on airlines,” Mr. Meltzer said.

The airline will continue to serve meals to coach passengers on trans-Atlantic and long-haul Caribbean flights.

Although US Airways is the first major airline to sell in-flight food, others will not be far behind.

• Midwest Airlines, a midsize airline, already sells food on many flights.

• Delta Air Lines plans to test market onboard food sales in July. Its new low-fare subsidiary airline, Song, already sells in-flight food.

• America West already has done market tests of food sales.

• United Airlines and Northwest Airlines are doing the tests.

• American Airlines is considering food sales at the gate but not in flight.

• Continental Airlines does not plan to cease giving passengers meals. “That was part of our strategy to attract and retain passengers,” spokeswoman Julie King said.

• Southwest Airlines, which does not provide full meals to passengers, plans to continue giving them snack packages that include peanuts, pretzels and cookies.

“We don’t have any immediate plans to begin selling food on board,” spokeswoman Linda Rutherford said.

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