Gone are hot meals on most economy-class flights within the nation. But as the food became cold, nonexistent or even for sale aboard some major airlines, discount carriers that have never served anything on a plate have begun promoting their little edible extras.
The airlines acknowledge that their offerings are not much -- about 25 cents' worth of upgraded peanuts and soft drinks per passenger. But they say they are ramping up, becoming more creative or at least guaranteeing passengers something when others are making cuts.
Southwest Airlines is handing out Honey Maid banana bars and Ritz snack mix. AirTran Airways is giving custom-made cheese crackers shaped like whales and Black Cherry Vanilla Coke at the same time the soda is being introduced in stores. And JetBlue Airways offers Twin Fin wine to go with its Terra Blue potato chips, although that comes with a small fee.
Airlines and analysts say the industry, which lost an estimated $10 billion last year, can not afford to feed every domestic traveler flying in an economy seat a hot meal when competition has forced down fares and fuel has pushed up expenses. But the relatively healthy discounters have seen a chance to gain the upper hand over rivals by spending extra pennies for such things as satellite radio, leather seats and a small bag or plastic cup of something distinct.
"The battleground in airlines seems to be in snacks," said Hugo Burge, vice chairman for cheapflights.com, an online fare finder. "It's about image rather than filling your stomach. They realized that when they take out all the snacks and ask you to pay for your soft drink, it could set up a negative experience. But a blue potato chip: How fun is that?"
He said the effort is bringing a little civility back to flying after years of cuts in service. He said food began to vanish about five years ago when European discounters such as the notorious penny-pincher Ryanair flew without offering any free food. Some liked it and expected nothing in exchange for a low fare, but others grew confused about what to expect when they traveled.
As major U.S. airlines began following suit, U.S. discounters saw a chance to be reliable and innovative with their small budgets.
Tad Hutcheson, an AirTran spokesman, said it has to be creative. Its per-passenger catering budget was about 40 cents, according to 2005 U.S. Department of Transportation data.
The airline seeks unusual items that change from time to time. At least until spring, AirTran will offer the whale-shaped crackers on afternoon flights to highlight Atlanta's new aquarium, where the carrier is a sponsor. And it will continue to offer Biscoff cookies in the morning. Airline officials were surprised recently when they tried to replace them and customers complained, Hutcheson said.
Its agreement with Coca-Cola Co., another Atlanta institution, brings products to passengers as they roll out, which give AirTran something new and the drink maker a marketing opportunity.
"Customers are used to the fact that if they are looking to get a meal on an airplane, they've got to fly to Europe," Hutcheson said. Discount carriers "have reset expectations. We're not in the food business. We're in the transportation business. ... That said, we do try and be innovative with the drinks and snacks we do offer."
The Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, said that in the third quarter of 2005, the latest statistics available, airlines spent 1.6 percent of their operating budget on food. That's well below the 24.7 percent airlines spent on labor and the 24.1 percent they spent on fuel.
The budget for food has been dropping since early last decade. The total has amounted to about $2 billion in each of the past three years, down more than a quarter since 1992. In the same time period, the money spent per revenue passenger mile, or each mile flown by a paying customer, has dropped more than half to a quarter of a cent.
The numbers now work out to an average of about $2 to $4 a passenger for all airlines, said Dean E. Headley, an associate professor at Wichita State University's W. Frank Barton School of Business and the co-author of an annual airline quality rating. That's a drop of about 50 percent to 100 percent for some airlines.
The financial pinch has led to cuts across the board, including food for passengers, and wages and benefits for workers. Some airlines charge for many things that used to be free, such as curbside check-in, booking tickets with an agent, extra baggage, even pillows and blankets, Headley said. Major airlines including American Airlines, United Airlines and Northwest Airlines, have charged $3 to $10 for a sandwich, salad or snack box. One regional carrier, American Eagle, experimented with charging for soda.