How much does an in-flight meal cost?

Meals served on board cost from 4 to over 100 euros. Not neutral, but not enough to explain buy-on-board or ticket prices alone.

Much is said about airline food. That the quality of the food is more or less mediocre, but also that in certain classes of travel it’s worthy of the most luxurious restaurants. It also comes as a surprise that the elimination of on-board service does not really lead to a reduction in ticket prices…

Let’s take a closer look…

A meal served on board a plane costs from 4 to over 100 euros

It’s not really a subject on which airlines communicate much, perhaps for fear of scaring off some customers, but after a bit of research we finally found some consistent figures on the cost of in-flight meals.

It is :

– from 4 to 10 euros in Economy

– 15 to 30 euros in business class

– up to 100 euros or more in first class.

We had a glimpse of this when, during the COVID crisis, some airlines sold on the ground the meals they no longer served in-flight, running the risk of their customers discovering their true price.

These prices are, of course, exclusive of tax, to which is added the margin taken by the airline.

At one end of the spectrum, you might think it’s really cheap, and at the other, you might think it’s approaching the price of a gourmet restaurant.

Perception bias in airline catering

But these raw figures mean little if other factors are not taken into account.

First of all, the meal won’t be the same whether you’re on a medium- or long-haul flight. Then, logically, a 10-euro meal will be perceived differently by passengers depending on whether they paid 100 or 400 euros for their ticket, thanks to yield management.

You also have to take into account part of the personnel costs and, less obviously, the price of kerosene.

If the price of kerosene rises, and part of that kerosene is used to carry the weight of the meals, an airline wishing to keep its costs in line will play on the quality of the dishes (a variable) to make up the price of fuel, over which it has no control. Or it will pass on the increase in the price of fuel to the price of the meal. In absolute terms, therefore, there is more investment in labor and raw materials on a business or premier dish than on an economy dish, which is logical.

This also puts into perspective the quality of economy class dishes, which often have a bad reputation: after all, for 4 to 10 euros, it’s not bad, is it? It’s a bit like with low-cost airlines: you only get what you pay for.

The problem with the customer’s perception is that he judges the service provided in relation to the ticket price, whereas it represents only a tiny part of it, especially when yield management goes wild. When you pay 500 euros for a ticket, you’re more demanding than when you pay 150 for the same flight, even though the difference between the two is simply a matter of supply and demand, not quality of service, with the price of the meal remaining the same.

Paradoxically, business and first-class passengers have less reason to complain, since the meal represents a smaller proportion of the ticket price. But there’s a halo effect here: the difference in terms of services offered overall and the seat mean that while the in-flight meal counts, it’s diluted in a more global experience.

There is therefore a logical perception bias against in-flight meals, but the airlines have a responsibility: by putting strong pressure on their suppliers, they are not helping them to raise their quality standards.

Does this justify buy-on-board policies?

The misunderstanding of buy on board

There’s a pronounced trend among the majors today, at least on their medium-haul network, to replace the usual economy catering service with buy-on-board, in other words a pay-as-you-go offer.

The airlines’ explanation is quite simple: since customers find our free offer of poor quality, we remove it and offer them a better-quality paid offer, which they are free to take or not.

It’s an approach that doesn’t convince us, because we’re convinced that there’s a way to provide quality for free.

Customers aren’t happy with this approach either: while they’re not systematically opposed to unbundling, they don’t see any reduction in ticket prices. A pay-as-you-go offer, why not, but as the free offer disappears, the ticket price has to go down, right? But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

In fact, when you consider how much a meal weighs on the price of an economy-class ticket, removing its cost from the overall ticket price is almost imperceptible to the customer. Worse still, the price of the ticket varies according to so many other variables (fuel, taxes, wage costs, etc.) that weigh infinitely more than the cost of the meal, that even if you remove the price of the meal, the price of the ticket continues to rise, leaving the passenger with the impression that he’s paying more for less.

So these 4 to 10 euros less on the ticket (if the airline really takes them off) are invisible to the customer, whereas for the airline it’s a huge saving when multiplied by hundreds of thousands of flights.

A practice that makes sense and has a real financial impact at the airline scale, but whose impact is at best imperceptible and at worst negatively perceived by the customer, who sees no reduction in the price of the ticket and has to pay for meals on top of it.

In-flight food: a not-so-differentiating factor

In the end, the last question we can ask ourselves is: “Is it really that important?”. Or, to put it another way, do people really care what they’re served on board?

While we haven’t found any real studies on the subject, it seems – and the feedback we hear and read here and there confirms this – that food is not a criterion of choice for passengers, which doesn’t mean it isn’t important. A passenger will always remember a quality meal, but that won’t be enough to make him choose one airline over another.

This is quite consistent with our own practices at TravelGuys: of course we’re curious to try an airline’s food, but we make our choice more on the basis of an overall experience or a seat. Meals are an essential part of a flight review, but they don’t determine the choice of airline. Paradoxically it’s an essential part of the experience, especially in front-end classes, but not really a selection criterion with one exception: on medium-haul flights in Europe, and especially in business class, we’ll always prefer an airline that offers a hot-food service (sorry for our national airline…), but on long-haul flights this criterion is less important.

So, are airlines wrong to invest in this area (or right not to)? In fact, it’s more a question of image. It’s not an objective criterion of choice in itself, but it’s an important element of its image and reputation. A bit like an unconscious criterion. It may not be because a Michelin-starred chef designs an airline’s business class menu that a passenger will choose it, but it will subconsciously influence the image and perceived quality of the airline.

In our opinion, this lack of customer interest is due to a number of factors.

– Most people don’t travel enough to have enough experience to compare.

– Their first choice is based on price and whether or not it’s a direct flight.

– Most passengers travel in economy class, where the service provided is much less qualitative and differentiating than in the front classes.

– They assume that the food will be bad anyway, and if it turns out not to be, it’ll just be the exception that proves the rule.

– If they complain about meal quality, they’re not ready to pay more.

Bottom line

The price of the meal tray has only a marginal impact on the airfare paid by the customer, even if on the scale of an airline it represents a substantial cost in absolute terms.

While its cost in business and first class makes it possible to provide a certain level of quality, the poor quality perceived in economy has to be put into perspective in relation to the actual price of the service, especially as passengers are not ready to pay more.
And in any case, while the quality of the food served can be part of an airline’s reputation, it is rarely a criterion of choice for passengers.

What about you? How important is the quality of the food when choosing an airline? Are you surprised by the cost of the meals? And what is your overall experience with in-flight food.

Image : in-flight meals by Mohd Syis Zulkipli via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrin
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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