The end of “meals at mealtime” on Continental Airlines

For the past couple years Continental Airlines has made a point of advertising the fact that they still serve complimentary “meals at mealtime” for their passengers, even on domestic flights in coach where other carriers have all cut back service. That era is coming to an end later this fall as the carrier follows the trail blazed by a number of other US-based carriers: Buy on Board meals. The new purchased meal option will be offered on most domestic routes under six hours in duration as well as many Latin America routes. Intercontinental and longer international routes, as well as the longest of the domestic flights, will continue to have complimentary meals offered.

Perhaps most telling regarding this change is the quote offered by Executive Vice President Jim Compton:

Our traditional free-food model has served us well for many years, but we need to change to reflect today’s market and customer preference.

Yup, it is actually the customers who are clamoring for the opportunity to buy meals on board. Or demanding fares that aren’t profitable. Either way, definitely the customers’ fault.

To be fair, Continental has been watching the numbers for quite some time now and, just like their decision to initially not charge for a checked bag, they aren’t seeing any return on that goodwill towards customers. One executive recently noted that customers simply weren’t booking to Continental because of the meal on board; their corporate Twitter account said the same thing in reply to an earlier tweet of mine on the topic.

@WanderngAramean It’s true. We know that economy-class customers have not selected airlines based on free meals.

Sure, they loved to poke fun at other carriers in the past with some entertaining TV ads on the topic:

But at this point they’re simply following the cash flow in the right direction. The sad part is that this does mark the end of an era in commercial air travel in the United States. It also means that there is still the potential for more bits to be sold off as unbundled services. Exit-row seating was announced just a few days ago. Now this.

What’s next?

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I find it hard to fault them for this change. While I haven’t flown Continental in probably a decade, I do recall the “free” food on other carriers, and it really wasn’t anything to write home about. The for-purchase food items on other carriers aren’t perfect either, but they are more to my liking.

    Interestingly, I have had free hot food on Jet Airways on a 2hr domestic route in India, and it was perfectly edible. Same was true for Bangkok Airways. Maybe Indian/Thai food is just inherently more airplane-friendly?

    So when’s the end (of free food) coming? Maybe I should book a transcon on CO just to get one more free economy meal before it’s all over.

  2. Just flew Continental last night (10/10/10) ATL > EWR, and sure enough the laminated-plastic menus for a la cart shopping are now in the seat pouches. A flight attendant told me that today (Oct 11) is the last day of free meals at mealtime, and tomorrow (Oct 12) is the first official day of paying for meals.

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