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Back in the day, airline passengers used to love complaining about bad domestic airline food. But Delta customers should be happy about this development. They'll be getting fresh, relatively healthy food on long flights.

Years after Delta Air Lines, like its U.S. competitors, removed free meals from its domestic flights, America’s most profitable airline is bringing them back — at least on some routes.

Delta, which made more than $6 billion in pre-tax income last year, said Thursday it soon will feed passengers substantial food on 12 of its longest U.S. routes. It says it’ll be the first airline to offer free food “from nose to tail” on coast-to-coast routes since Continental Airlines removed its snacks in 2010. The plan, Delta said, is to give away food in the airline’s “most strategic markets.”

Delta’s announcement comes three and a half months after it began surprising customers with food on some flights between New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. During a six-week test, Delta said it was evaluating whether snacks improved customer satisfaction scores. The airline reported a “significant increase” in scores.

On most of the routes that will have food, Delta has fierce competition, both from legacy airlines, such as United Airlines and American Airlines, as well as Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways. Among those airlines, only American offers free coach meals on domestic flights, and it only has them on its longest routes to Hawaii. 

From New York JFK, where Delta competes with American and JetBlue on many routes, Delta will feed customers headed to Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle and Portland, Oregon. From Seattle, where Alaska Airlines is the main competition, Delta will have free food to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Orlando and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. And from Boston, where JetBlue is market leader, Delta will feed customers flying to Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

One other route — Los Angeles to Washington Reagan — will also have free food. Both American and Alaska also fly between the two airports.

Flights between New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco will start getting free food on March 1. Food will reappear on all other routes on April 24.

The snacks, which Delta said it will change on a regular schedule, will be similar to what Delta sells on longer flights. At first, on morning flights, Delta will offer a breakfast sandwich, cheese plate, or “breakfast medley,” which usually includes a hard-boiled egg, fruit and small muffins. At other times, passengers will have the choice of a turkey sandwich, vegetable wrap or fruit and cheese plate. On red-eye flights, Delta will pass out breakfast bars before landing.

Delta had already been giving free substantial snacks to customers sitting its premium economy section, called Comfort Plus.

Delta will feed all customers, including those on its bare-bones fares, called Basic Economy. Customers who buy those fares, which were designed to allow Delta to profitably compete with discounters Frontier Airlines, Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines, are not able to choose seats in advance, nor can they upgrade their tickets, or change their flights for any reason. But once on the plane, Delta tries to treat the customers like any other passengers.

Other U.S. airlines may eventually copy Delta, but that’s far from certain. Delta has long been more generous with food than many competitors, and even after Delta started providing free food, beer and wine to its domestic premium economy customers, neither American nor United followed.

On regular flights, Delta also offers more substantial light snacks than American and United. It recently added Hanover pretzels, Squirrel Brand Honey Roasted peanuts and NatureBox Apple Cinnamon Yogurt Bars to its rotation. 

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Tags: delta air lines, food and drink, paxex

Photo credit: Coach customers on some longer Delta Air Lines flights will receive free food, including cheese plates, starting on Dec. 1. Delta Air Lines

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