The Weird Logic Behind Free Late-Night Airline Meals
On overnight, international flights, midnight dinners are the one perk that airlines have yet to strip away.
It’s been years since you’ve gotten pretzels on board a domestic flight. Or since you were offered a blanket in coach. But the one amenity that has yet to go away? Midnight meals on international flights.
You know the drill: you’ve settled into your seat with a game plan to while away seven or eight overnight hours, maybe more. Your airplane pillow is ready to go and you’ve strategized your airport dinner so that your stomach isn’t reeling from greasy fast food. At cruising altitude, the cabin lights dim, and you set your slumber plan in motion. Until a flight attendant wheels by with a trolley: “chicken or beef?” “Chicken or beef?” “Chicken or beef?”
So why do airlines insist on serving sub-par dinners when they’ve cut the rest of their conveniences? We asked, and found a surprising answer: apparently, it’s because they think that’s what travelers want.
“Good question,” said a representative from United Airlines when we asked about the practice. “The answer is simple. Based on the feedback we’ve gotten over the years, customers want dinner service on those later flights, so that’s why we continue to offer it.”
But if that’s true, it seems the tide is turning. A spokesperson for Delta told us that the airline is “evaluating a revised service for very late flights.” Though originally meal plans were developed around the body clock, the body clock simply doesn’t want a heavy dinner at 1 a.m.—that’s why Delta has recently revised meal service on a flight to Lima that leaves after 1 a.m. According to the airline, the change “lightens up the first meal service, allowing folks to rest early, and offers a heartier second service before arrival.” That said, they haven’t eliminated the nighttime meal entirely on the route—they’ve just made it a little easier to stomach.
One more sign that late-night dining is soon to go the way of free headphones and seat-back television screens? A recent move by AirFrance to let business class passengers take their meals—the exact same ones they’d be served on board—in the airport lounge pre-departure. So far, the service is only available for flights leaving New York’s JFK airport, but it’s meant to ensure that “customers can enjoy a good night’s sleep.” That said, even AirFrance seems convinced that the move might go against passengers’ desires. As something of a concession to those who are dead set on enjoying one of the last free perks in the skies, AirFrance has made it clear that the lounge-based meals are an additional perk—not a ploy to serve fewer meals and cut costs aboard. Said a representative: “Customers [who have already enjoyed a meal in the lounge] that have a very healthy appetite can choose to eat again during the flight.”