Delta is bringing free meals back to economy class on some long U.S. flights after dropping them years ago to save money.
Delta said Thursday it will start serving meals to all passengers on 12 long-haul routes over the next several weeks.
Airlines took away free sandwiches and similar fare after two industry downturns in the decade of the 2000s. Delta was among the first to drop meals in economy, in 2001, and all the other big U.S. carriers did the same by 2010.
Since then, the carriers have returned to profitability and gone on a spree of buying new jets and hiring more employees. But free meals in economy have remained scarce except on international flights and ones to Hawaii — American gives passengers a sandwich box on some flights to the islands, and Delta began offering free meals on Honolulu flights last August.
On nearly all other domestic flights, passengers sitting in the main cabin have to schlep their own meals from the airport concourse, pay for one on board, or make do with airline pretzels and peanuts.
Delta tested free meals on routes between New York and California last year. Lisa Bauer, the airline's vice president of on-board services, said customer-satisfaction scores were much higher on flights with meals.
"People appreciate not being nickel-and-dimed on these long flights," she said in an interview. "We believe this will be a competitive advantage."
Representatives for both American Airlines and United Airlines said their carriers were studying the possibility of adding complimentary meals in the main cabin.
Seth Kaplan, managing partner of industry newsletter Airline Weekly, predicted that American and United will copy Delta's latest move because they don't want to give Delta any more selling points.
"Most people won't shop primarily based on which airline includes a meal, and many won't pay more to fly one that does," Kaplan said. But for corporate and small-business travelers — many of whom fly in economy, not pricier business-class — "this stuff matters," he said.
Atlanta-based Delta declined to say how much it will cost the airline to offer the meal service.
Delta Air Lines Inc. can afford a few sandwiches and cheese plates. It had pretax income of $13.8 billion in 2015 and 2016, compared with $8.9 billion for American Airlines Group Inc. and $8.0 billion for United Continental Holdings Inc. over those two years.
Delta said even passengers paying the cheapest "basic economy" fare will get free meals. Options include a honey-maple breakfast sandwich, a turkey combo and a veggie wrap.
The airline said the service will start March 1 on flights between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and both Los Angeles and San Francisco.
It will expand on April 24 to 10 more cross-country routes: JFK to Seattle, San Diego and Phoenix; between Boston and Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle; Reagan Washington National Airport-Los Angeles; and between Seattle and Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.