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Today's world of commercial plane rides is very competitive.

I bet packing all that food onto the plane is expensive - both for the food itself and the logistical headache of preparing, moving and putting all that food onto a plane.

Why not just skip it - and not serve food?

They don't serve food on long haul buses and trains. I would be happy to pay a cheaper fare for no in flight food.

I realise some companies have downgraded to offering snacks like peanuts. But for most longer flights, there's always food. And why even offer snacks? Nothing is cheaper than nothing.

It's not like I chose a plane based on its food. I chose for the price and timings. Why not just let passengers bring their own food?

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8 Answers 8

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Why not just skip it - and not serve food?

They don't serve food on long haul buses and trains. I would be happy to pay a cheaper fare for no in flight food.

It's already happening. It's ubiquitous on low cost carriers and it's becoming more and more common on legacy airlines in Europe and even some long-haul flights (e.g. French Bee). Then it becomes a question of differentiating your product from the competition, the risk of a backlash if you lower the service compared to the status quo, and how you balance all this with a complex fare structure. Some airline will do it, some won't, and yet others are going in the other direction with a premium experience by default.

Incidentally, they do serve foods on trains, including meals served at your seat and bundled in premium fares (Thalys, Eurostar, Frecciarossa) but it's true I am not aware of any regular train service where every fare includes a meal or snack.

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    all nightjet couchettes and sleeper include breakfast (but not regular seat, it's true)
    – njzk2
    Commented Jan 6 at 21:25
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    @njzk2 In the sleeper, you even get a little welcome package with a snack IIRC. I didn't mention it because there is indeed a fare without anything.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jan 6 at 21:39
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    There is no lunch or dinner at all on the Intercitynotte, despite it running for over 21 hours from start to finish on its longest route (Palermo to Milano), as I hungrily found out, being rescued by a ferry crossing on the Strait of Messina where food was sold on the ferry… the queue was as long as the ferry crossing… Why Trenitalia has food on the Frecciarossa but not on its night trains is not something I understand.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 8 at 11:10
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    Fare structures and competition are key reasons. Airlines make most of their money from business passengers, who typically pay more for tickets. Passengers whose flight is paid by their company, whether premium economy or business or first class, will choose food because they're not really paying for it. And businesspeople who're used to getting food will be reluctant to book a food-free flight, because they want to fly as luxuriously as they're allowed to, even though tourists may be more willing to compromise to save money.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 8 at 16:59
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    I second the point about meals on trains. In UK, first class seats on most even medium-distance trains includes meal. I have gotten meals on London-Birmingham route, which is only about 2 hours. And in many UK trains, there's at least a "buffet cart" pushed through the train where you can buy snacks/drinks/etc
    – Aleks G
    Commented Jan 8 at 17:02
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Commercial air travel is not, by itself, a pleasant experience. You have to take a cab or bus to the airport, wait in line, pass security, wait in line, check in, wait for your flight, sometimes delayed, wait in line, board, wait in line to sit down. Then, spend hours sitting with little to do, especially if you're in economy without IFE.

Eating is an inherently pleasant activity, since it does play some role in basic survival. Hunger is being satisfied, hormones are being produced. If nothing else, it's at least an activity that breaks up the experience of just sitting.

Mid-century long-distance airlines took inspiration from ocean liners, which definitely do serve food. The Stratocruiser, the Tristar, and early 747s had spacious dining lounges, on the lower deck (now taken by cargo) or the upper deck in the Queen, plus bars on the main deck. Does this image inspire you to fly more than that of a row of seats? If you're a non-drinker, feel frree to pick another from the site above.

enter image description here

The reason in-flight food hasn't been entirely phased out is that, even served on a seat-back tray table, it gives some enjoyment to most passengers. That leaves the flight as a more pleasant experience in memory, and makes them less unlikely to pick air travel for their future trips.

If it's an actual hot meal, which are becoming increasingly rare, it might be one's only quantum of solace through the whole ordeal. A mix of good and bad leaves a better aftertaste than just the bad.

Cost-wise, it's not a big expense. You can fit a few extra seats if you completely remove the galley, but you run into the exit limit. Even Ryanair only halved it in size, since they sell what little fits at a massive markup. The food itself is pennies compared to fuel and airport fees, the two biggest expenses in air travel. Even full-service airlines spend $3 to $6.50 on an economy meal, and as little as $1 for low-cost carriers. This figure is going down year by year. Airport fees are going up, reaching $35 and even $50, which makes business tougher for the airlines.

They don't serve food on long haul buses and trains.

They definitely do - long-distance trains have dining cars. Some are still as luxurious as in the 1800s. Long-haul buses make stops at roadside cafes - sometimes too many stops, but you can count on at least one.

enter image description here

On a personal note, separate dining cars remain one of the reasons I prefer train when traveling as a passenger, as long as I can afford the extra time. It's not just about the food, but also about more social opportunities, and a more dignified feeling overall.

Of course, train economics are different - they can be almost arbitrarily long, drag is almost fixed, rolling resistance is low, electrics also use regenerative braking, so added weight or even an extra car is cheap.

In the air, it's not. Lounges in the air cost their weight in fuel to carry. They're not completely gone - you still get them on some better carriers, most reliably on Emirates A380 flights. But in-seat airline meals, excluding water, only take up ~100 kg for a narrowbody (320 or 737), or 0.25% of total weight, making them a small concession to comfort.

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    I have travelled on long distance bus trips in Argentina where food was served to your seat.
    – slingeraap
    Commented Jan 8 at 12:36
  • In the Third World, it is pretty common for bus-lines to make a substantial fraction of their income on kickbacks that restaurants (and retailers) pay in return for stop-overs at the establishments. (Never, I hardly need add, eat or shop at a place where the bus stops.) Commented Jan 8 at 17:56
  • In South America at least there are stops for snacks on long haul bus journeys. Harder to do when in the air.
    – Simd
    Commented Jan 9 at 9:21
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    Cab to the airport ? At least in the UK the vast majority of travellers arrives by public transport. Commented Jan 9 at 11:50
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    “Eating is an inherently pleasant activity” — Not when eating standard airplane food. Commented Jan 9 at 14:30
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Maybe it was a historic thing that both airlines and passengers got used to it, but there are other reasons in my opinion:

  • Competition. If I have the option between two airlines with similar prices, I will pick the one that offers more stuff. As a person who works for an airline, I can tell you that many full-service airlines have huge, dedicated teams just for the food and beverage because airlines believe that it's important. In fact, almost all the bloggers who evaluate airlines consider the food to be one of the most important aspects.

  • You can easily bring food onboard buses and trains as the security measures are much relaxed, you can bring your own home cooked meals in some container, that's not the case for airplanes due to the high security measures and possibly luggage limitations, with the exception of some restaurants in the duty free where you can pick up some food from a few options before you board.

  • Long haul bus rides usually have stops, usually in places where you can buy food. That's not the case for flights.

  • Connecting flights: as many airlines nowadays tend to have hubs where they offer transit flights that takes you from the far east to the far west with crazy connections times. Passengers expect to be fed, had their luggage delivered to the last destination, and even more.

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    Since when can I not bring food on an airplane? I know limitations for liquids (but I can refill a water bottle after security), and on bringing food into another country (as long as I eat that apple before I reach the US I should be fine), but do airlines nowadays prohibit passengers from bringing food on-board?
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 8 at 11:15
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    @gerrit I have seen food being confiscated at security checks so many times. Commented Jan 8 at 13:54
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    You may have to surrender some foods at security, but you can normally buy food in the airport once you're past security and bring it on the flight; on every airplane/airline I've ever flown with.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 8 at 16:55
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    I bring food to a flight very often and I have never had anything confiscated. Just don't bring any liquids. Obviously, if you have a liquid-like food or with some sauce in a sealed box, that will be indeed confiscated. But not a sandwich, even quite a fancy one. Commented Jan 8 at 23:02
  • The food thing depends on the destination country usually.
    – Pyritie
    Commented Jan 9 at 11:35
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When comparing air travel to trains and buses, a number of points stand out that make a difference when it comes to food:

  • Buses make regular stops (rest for the driver, by law) where passengers can get out, buy a meal, walk around a bit. No need for the bus to provide meals if it provides opportunities for meals.
  • Many long-distance trains have restaurant cars specifically in order to provide meals to passengers.
  • Planes don't make stops and given the seating arrangements and difficulties to get in and out for everyone not with an aisle seat, a "restaurant area" wouldn't make any sense. Serving the food at the seat is the only option with reasonable logistics. (not to mention airlines these days would consider the "restaurant" wasted space into which they can cram more rows of passengers)
  • Meals provide welcome distraction and busy times during an otherwise boring travel, where unlike buses and trains, even looking out the windows doesn't provide much in entertainment.
  • Passengers are less likely to be difficult if they're not hungry and thirsty.
  • Airports are security zones, so passengers have much fewer options of bringing their own food compared to buses and trains. So the airline has to take care of basic needs.

I also assume that, at least prior to online reservations and stuff, the logistics of simply packing a default set of meals for all passengers were a lot simpler than having passengers pre-order and pre-pay from a menu. And at least on long-haul flights you need to have some option for people to eat something. Nowadays, more flexibility is theoretically possible, but you would have to overhaul all the booking systems of all partners, travel agencies, etc. which takes time and costs money.

Finally, while there are no laws or regulations, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommends that airlines provide meals and drinks on flights that are over eight hours long.

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    so passengers have much fewer options of bringing their own food compared to buses and trains => there are no limits on how much non-liquid food you can bring onboard, other than the size of your carry-on. I routinely bring my own mean on 6+ hour flights as even a Happy Meal from McDonalds is better than anything I could possibly be served with onboard.
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Jan 7 at 22:31
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    And some people will bring inappropriate foods. You don't want that smelly fish on a seven hour flight. Commented Jan 8 at 4:04
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    Trains and buses also do not have three hours of overhead time (check-in, security, immigration, baggage pick-up...)
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 8 at 8:37
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    Trains and buses also stop regularly, in some countries you can buy food through the windows from hawkers. In China you may not be able to do that from a train, but you can pre-order using an app from your phone while traveling and have the food brought to your seat from a restaurant near an upcoming station. But I think part of the reason is boredom and keeping people more-or-less pleasantly and predictably occupied during a long flight. Even in 3 or 4 hour chunks between feed bag applications it goes slowly for those of us who can't snooze. Commented Jan 8 at 8:47
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    If you're looking to lower the cost of travel (as the OP seems to be doing), then spending money at an airport restaurant is NOT the way to do it, @Barmar! Prices are obscene there!! Last time I flew, I bought a $20 sandwich sold by the airport version of a local deli. TBF, I bought it knowing it was probably "only" $15 had I purchased it prior to arrival at the airport and I know that it's an excellent sandwich...
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jan 8 at 13:44
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It may seems counterintuitive, but it is also about reducing costs.

Think about two long-haul flight, one with food and one without food. Think about what passengers will do.

Most people will eat anyway, so they will buy food and drinks e.g. from Mac Donald's, so airline will safe few bucks. But then airline has a problem: there is a lot of trash, much more compared to the food they serve, and with different packing, so it makes more difficult to separate. And airlines must remove trash, else dirts and stains will cause slower cleaning, but also for security reasons (evacuation). But if you have own food, you will eat at any time, so also removing trash would be a continuous job.

And for drinks: it would more difficult to check alcohol serving. If one just forbid beverages, it would be unhealthy (long flight): dehydration, so probably unlawful.

Note: it is also a hidden way to check passengers (panic, drunken, unfit, panic, under sleeping pills, etc.) which helps in case of emergency (the first check it is done when you enter the aircraft).

Note: it may help also passengers to calm them and to help passing time: the same reason usually airlines may give some paper to draw or other games, to distract and not let to disrupt all cabin.

Do not worry: airlines can do economic calculations better then us (and with more information), and considering how much they consider our comfort and their costs reduction, we can be pretty sure that the reason is still about costs: it is more economic to deliver very cheap food.

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I think it is a left over from the time air travel was always luxury, on the same level as the most expensive classes are now.
Food and drinks service was one of the things that had to be included, as was transport of luggage, handing out blankets and likely other niceties that are mostly forgotten now.

While some of those small things have been taken away, others are still available for a fee. Food is one of the ones that is available for money on most of the flights, I think this is partly because you can not stop a plane as you can stop a bus at a restaurant or roadside service station.
An other may well be that with security stopping people bringing several items into planes, most trains and buses do not have those restrictions.

The shorter flights do mostly do not serve full meals, not even on full fare traditional airlines, partly because there is not much time and most passengers come from waiting for a long time in the airport where they have had something to eat, but airlines still offer either a snack and a drink or have an option to buy some food and/or drink, as some passengers will want something, or even need something if they did not get time to eat on a short connection.

I have read in books that food on planes was not always included worldwide, which was a rude surprise for the people in that book, airlines these days try to avoid rude surprises, as that is not good public relations.

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    I also think it's due to the legacy of flying being a luxury. Airlines used to compete on features, not prices, because travelers were less price-sensitive. Even in the 70's and 80's, meals almost comparable to today's first-class meals were common in all classes, and they were included in the price.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 7 at 22:49
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    Airfares (in the US, at least) were also government regulated until the early- mid-80s. That kept prices in check, but it also kept competition in check...
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jan 8 at 13:46
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  • Breaks up the monotony of a long flight
  • 7 or more hours can be a long time to go without food or refreshment
  • Helps to economically justify the presence of the flight attendants. They are required by regulation for their safety role (evacuations, in-flight incidents), and helpful during normal boarding and un-boarding, but in the middle of a long cruise when all is quite, they have nothing to do.

In the early days, meals were part of the luxury experience of flight. Consider also that early piston-powered airliners flew slower so flights took much longer.

Pre-9/11 I suppose passengers could have brought their own food and refreshment on board so airlines could have easily dispensed with meal service. Post-9/11 precautions consider the potential to sneak something harmful into the cabin by disguising it as something benign such as food or drink, making for a smoother passenger experience to offer some level of food service on any flight longer than maybe 3 or 4 hours.

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  • Own food absolutely is allowed even after 9/11. I brought it many times. Make a sandwich and bring it on the plane. No problem. It is not forbidden by any regulation. Only fluids are. And certain fluid-like foods like jam or honey in jars. But that is not a problem. Commented Jan 8 at 20:24
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The answers so far seem to miss the following fact:

Many travellers are NOT paying for their own flights. They are business travellers with flights paid for by their employers. While their employers have travel policies (for example requiring economy class travel on most flights) and would question very expensive flights, they're fine with a traveller spending an extra $100 to fly their preferred airline. Spending an extra $15 to supply a meal is certainly worth it for an airline looking to attract such travellers.

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  • a very interesting point. Thank you.
    – John Hon
    Commented Jan 10 at 2:39

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