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American opts for snacks on short trips as first-class meals end

Mary Schlangenstein and Caelainn Barr
(c) 2014, Bloomberg News.

Meals in American Airlines' first- class cabins, a throwback to the bygone era of free food for all fliers, are poised to disappear from some shorter flights.

Snacks will replace full meals as of Sept. 1 on trips of less than 2 hours, 45 minutes, except on busy routes such as New York-Chicago. Meals now start on flights of 2 hours, according to American, which is making the change on service within the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The shift at the world's largest airline blurs the line between coach and premium cabins, where complementary meals have long differentiated the pricier, roomier seats at the front of the plane. American's policy also moves the Fort Worth, Texas- based company closer to the standards at its biggest rivals, United Continental Holdings and Delta Air Lines.

"When I hear they are playing with that competitive advantage, that saddens me," Jay Sorensen, a former Midwest Airlines marketing director, said Monday in an interview. "They are now in mode of making good money and I was hoping we were going to see carriers uphold quality."

First-class passengers on flights of less than 1 hour will receive a "packaged snack," while those on trips of less than 2 hours will get a basket with a "variety of sweet and savory snack options," according to an e-mail Monday to members of the airline's AAdvantage frequent-flier plan.

Flights of 2 hours to 2 hours, 45 minutes will now offer a snack basket with fresh fruit and breakfast breads or sandwiches and packaged snacks. A spokesman, Casey Norton, couldn't immediately say what percentage of American's flights are less than 2 hours 45 minutes.

"We looked at what the customers wanted, and found a good number of customers didn't want a full meal on a flight less than 2 hours," Norton said in an interview.

Norton said the new rules will align meal practices at American and US Airways, which operate separately as they await U.S. clearance to combine service after their December merger formed parent American Airlines Group. In April, the minimum flight time for US Airways' first-class meals was cut to 2 hours 45 minutes from 3 1/2 hours.

Sorensen, who is now president of consultant IdeaWorksCompany in Shorewood, Wisconsin, said American's move takes it to the brink of abandoning premium service on shorter flights.

"If you're going to pay a first-class fare, you should have food on that flight," Sorensen said. "Do away with the charade -- put in wider seats and call it premium economy."

American's decision further distances the industry from a history of free food that began in the 1920s, when trips were so slow that passengers had to eat. The last U.S. carrier serving free meals for economy travelers was Continental Airlines, which began charging for food for coach fliers on most domestic and Canadian flights in 2010 ahead of its merger with United.

Full meals will remain in place in American's first-class cabins for flights longer than 2 hours, 45 minutes. An appetizer will be added to meals on flights of 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours, while passengers on longer routes also will get a dessert and pre- arrival snack, the airline said. Meal-service hours are 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.

American categorizes flights of less than 2 hours as being as far as 699 miles (1,125 kilometers). The 2-hour, 45-minute threshold for full meals would typically cover trips of 1,000 to 1,298 miles, according to the airline.

Delta offers snacks such as cookies or pretzels to first- class travelers on flights of as far as 250 miles and "heartier" snacks on trips of 251 to 899 miles, according to its website. During certain hours, a full meal is provided on flights of 900 to 1,499 miles and a full meal plus snacks on flights of more than 1,500 miles.

United provides packaged cookies or pretzels on flights of less than 220 miles, or 1 hour or less; and breakfast scones or snacks and fresh fruit on flights of 1 to 2 1/2 hours, the carrier said on its website. It provides meals on trips longer than 700 miles between Chicago and Boston, Newark and New York's LaGuardia and between Denver and Houston and Los Angeles.

On flights of 900 to 2,299 miles, or 2 1/2 to 5 hours, United serves a meal during "traditional meal times" on most flights or a snack between those times, and offers a full meal with a snack on flights longer than 2,300 miles or 5 hours.

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