Now, there really won’t be any such thing as a free lunch.
Continental, the last remaining major U.S. airline to offer free in-flight meals, has announced that they will begin charging for food on most flights within North America. The new Food-for-Sale program will begin this fall and will be similar to what the other U.S. carriers already have in place.
To their credit, Continental held out a lot longer than their competitors, most of who stopped offering free meals over a year ago. Continental had hoped to use the free meals as a competitive advantage that would encourage more people to choose them. But it didn’t seem to work, and now the $35 million in annual revenue that they are leaving on the table is too enticing to ignore.
While it is easy to shrug off this news (who likes airline food anway?), there is a larger issue at play here. Whether it’s free food, more legroom, or internet access, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between booking behavior and airline services. American’s “More Room in Coach” campaign a few years back was a classic example: the airline took out several rows of seats on each plane to give everyone more room but ended up adding the seats back because no one seemed to care when they made their airline choice. If you ask an airline exec, he or she will say that fliers have repeatedly told them (through their booking habits) that, yes, they like good service and in-flight perks, but none of those will be enough to change who they book with — in the end, they are still going to go with whoever is least expensive.
Surely, sites like ours and others across the internet are partly to blame. Our comparison shopping engines are all built around price and we spend countless hours trying to build better and better technology to identify the lowest air fares. Neither we, nor any other web site, does a particularly good job of allowing customers to compare airlines on criteria other than price (like in-flight service and amenities).
We’d love to hear your opinion on this. Do you base your airline decision on just price, or do you factor in what kind of service the airline offers? Would you be willing to pay a little more to fly an airline that offered more perks and in-flight amenities? Would you like us to do a better job at identifying which airlines offer which services? Or would you prefer that we keep our focus on price, because that’s the most important factor to you?