There Is No Pie in the Sky

There’s a rumor out on the Interwebs that Delta Air Lines is thinking about a discussion of how it might possibly consider reintroducing complimentary hot meal service on long domestic coach flights.

My favorite message board remark, so far, on this possibility: “The only thing more offensive than the airline meal was when the airlines stopped serving them.”

The truth of this rumor is probably irrelevant. Delta may or may not be having meetings where executives bandy about the idea of giving coach passengers hot meals. Executives are forever bandying, which is what passes for leadership these days. It doesn’t matter because Delta will never, ever in a million years do it.

I recognize that one should never, ever say that something is never, ever going to happen because one can never, ever be absolutely sure of anything. And it must be noted that the legacy airlines have not been models of stability, logic and sound business practices for lo these many years. Who knows what they might do next?

Still, even if one has to accept the exceedingly remote possibility that an airline might interrupt decades of cutting back on service to restore a service that would cost money, one must never, ever pretend to believe it. I would feel comfortable taking bets that it’s more likely Spirit Airlines will start charging “tray use fees” when passengers bring their own meals than it is a legacy airline will start slinging free meals around the coach cabin.

And once again I feel obligated to mention that I am kidding, lest Spirit Airlines adopt the aforementioned policy. I fear that if I keep making up fees for Spirit, I’ll be named CEO.

I will also concede that if any airline were about to do such an unlikely thing, the least unlikely airline (or air line) to do it would be Delta. Last week Delta announced a $1.4 billion profit for the third quarter. This would buy a lot of chicken, pasta or beef. And if the change were limited only to the longest domestic flights — 3.5 hours and up — the cost might not be huge. But Delta seems to have other plans for that pile of cash — such as paying dividends to shareholders, buying back stock and paying down debt.

I will also concede the possibility that Delta might restore hot meal service and charge for it. It does this already on a limited scale. For example, it sells $9.50 hamburgers on some transcontinental flights and reheated individual pizzas on its Atlanta to Honolulu flights.

For perspective, remember that Atlanta to Honolulu is a 10-hour flight, longer than many transatlantic flights on which Delta still provides hot meals in coach. I even think I remember, through a vague and nostalgic mist, when the Atlanta to Honolulu trip included two hot meals.

But forget nostalgia. We’re not going back to piano lounges upstairs in the 747 and I can’t believe we’re going back to complimentary hot meals in coach, not in any meaningful way. (Also, gas is not going back under $2 a gallon and I’ll never fly in another L-1011.) The cost of the food itself is only one factor; many aircraft galleys would have to be refitted with ovens, which also adds weight, which increases fuel costs.

What Delta ought to do, and won’t, is get rid of its checked bag fees. It should do this because the refusal to feed people is no longer a competitive disadvantage. But bag fees are. They’ve already caused all kinds of problems. Chief among these is the natural response of passengers to stuff every last article of clothing into a carry-on and clog the aisle as they strain to wedge the bulging bag into an already overloaded overhead bin. This slows down everything.

Delta won’t drop bag fees because it collected $865.9 million from them in 2012. Even if it can repeat its $1.4 billion profit every quarter for an annual profit of $5.6 billion, $865.9 million is a big chunk of change to forfeit.

Yet, in the long term, allowing coach passengers to check bags (or at least one bag) for free would mean a more efficient ground operation and a competitive advantage over the other legacy airlines. But long term is not the term in which most airline executives think, and even Southwest Airlines now refuses to rule out the possibility of bag fees.

So my advice is to get used to the cold comfort of a $7.50 Delta fruit and cheese plate. It’s never, ever going to get much better than that.

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