If you dislike airline food, you’re not alone. The mega-merger era begun in the mid-1980’s ended with the amalgamation of American Airlines with US Airways. Among the “legacy carriers” (American, United and Delta) the Low Cost Carriers (Southwest, Jet Blue and Virgin America) and Ultra Low Cost airlines (Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant), here is a thumb nail sketch of food on board:
“I don’t think airlines are keeping up with the trends across the United States, the ‘better for you’ food trend, the organic trend,” said Charles Platkin, nutrition professor at Hunter College and City University of New York. Worse, most airlines fail to provide nutritional information that appeals to passengers concerned with making healthy choices. Even cereal boxes in grocery stores carry this information.
What Platkin did was to survey 12 major U.S. air carriers and then rank them according to whether they include low-calorie, nutritious items on their menus and then examine to what extent, if any, they provided that information. Economy Class passenger meals and snacks were his focus.
Virgin America, launched in 2007, tops the list in Platkin’s survey. Following are his comments: “When they came on the scene, they really started paying attention to their food (and) they were the first to offer calorie and nutrition information,” Platkin said. Virgin provides this information for its food on board, and although some of this information is missing online, a company spokesperson said the airline is working to add it. Virgin America was recently purchased by Alaska Airlines, and is currently operated as a subsidiary.
Delta Air Lines
Delta used to have some of the worst airplane food, but this airline made a 180 degree turn with their offering and came in second this year. Platkin attributed Delta’s progress to the fact that some of its meals are now made by Luvo, a health-focused frozen food company. Delta does provide calorie information, such as the 460-calorie Grilled Chicken Wrap and the 520-calorie Fresh Breakfast Medley. A spokesperson for Delta said it plans to start listing the ingredients in all menu items, if not the nutritional information, in 2016. Delta is the best in service among the mega carriers in the U.S.
JetBlue is tied with Delta for second place in this year’s survey. It scored points for providing calorie and nutritional information for its meals and some of its snack boxes on its website. Among the lower-calorie choices are the Grilled Chicken & Brie Sandwich at 680 calories and the Chobani Yogurt & Granola, which has 210 calories. It’s also a favorite airline among many travelers.
Technically, Air Canada earned third place. While not a U.S. carrier, Platkin included it because it has many flights into and out of the U.S. — which makes sense. Although Air Canada does not provide calorie information as the top three airlines do, the staff is very forthcoming with the information. Platkin recommended the Chicken Club Wrap, which has 360 calories, and the 450-calorie sushi. Among the snack selections, your best bets are the Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup at 200 calories, because it will feel more like a meal, and the 130-calorie Celery & Carrots with Ranch Dip.
United Airlines is tied with Air Canada for third place, but that is a step down from previous years for the carrier that is rebounding in its service delivery with a new board of directors, president and CEO Oscar Munoz. It was tops in the 2008 survey after it came up with the idea of snack boxes and introduced several healthy options, Platkin said. United has also lost points for selling higher-calorie individual snacks than in years past. Many have more than 350 calories, such as the Pringles chips, at 375 calories. The good news is that United has brought down the calorie count. The 601-calorie Wrap and Salad Combo, which contains grilled chicken and vegetables, is your best bet, said Platkin.
One of the major problems with American Airlines, which ranks in fourth place, is that it has cut way back on its food options, Platkin said. The Chicken Cobb Salad and Asian Chicken Wrap, containing 310 and 620 calories respectively, are the only two choices for lunch and dinner. The pickings are also slim for breakfast, with three items that are all high in calories. On the bright side, the snack offerings have come down in calorie count. The clear winner in this department is the hummus and chips at 147 calories. Whether this is a major focus of the final major airline merger (American merged with US Airways in 2015) remains to be seen.
Alaska Airlines, which ranked fifth, is one of the few airlines that changed the calorie content of its meals and snacks for the worse. But let’s see if they adopt anything from their recent purchase of Virgin America. The number of calories in an average meal jumped from 456 to 606. The one lunch offering (for flights in the continental U.S.) is Tom Douglas’ Turkey Sandwich, and it has 693 calories. For dinner, Tom Douglas’ Roast Turkey with Veggie Hash has 532 calories. Alaska, for what it’s worth has consistently ranked high in service as an airline carrier.
The choices on Southwest which ranked in sixth place, may be pretty simple: Do you want pretzels or peanuts? Platkin recommended the 70-calorie peanuts over the 50-calorie pretzels as a good source of protein. Although the airline has a greater selection of free snacks on longer flights, it never offers meals. Southwest selects the healthiest possible options for its snacks, such as multi-grain, and the calorie and nutritional information are provided, according to a spokesperson. As an aside, Southwest carries a fin atmosphere, general boarding and never takes itself too seriously. It has been profitable for nearly four decades and carriers more domestic passengers in the U.S than any other carrier.
Tied with Southwest for sixth place, Allegiant is rated poorly because of some pretty unhealthy snack choices. The individual for-sale snacks are all about 400 calories or more, with the exception of the 200-calorie Gardetto’s chips. Among the snack packs, the 210-calorie Hummus Snack Pack is recommended. But Platkin warned, “Don’t let your kids near the Wingz Kids Snack Pack,” a 310-calorie load of cookies and candy. Along with Spirit and Frontier, this airline is ranked as an “Ultra Low Cost Carrier, or ULCC.
In seventh place, Spirit (regarded by many as worse than taking a Greyhound Bus) lost points because of its unwillingness to provide Platkin with nutritional information. Many of the snacks for sale are more than 400 calories, and the Jumbo-Size Combo is 840 calories per bag. You’re better off going with the 290-calorie Nissin Cup Noodles or sharing one of the 400-calorie muffins. Or even better, Platkin suggests bringing your own food.
Hawaiian, which tied Spirit for seventh, offers a cornucopia of snack choices. But they are all so high in calories. Hawaiian is a throwback in being one of the few carriers that serve free food on domestic flights. And just as with the other airlines before it, Hawaiian’s meals are heavy in calories. Its Penne Bolognese had 956 calories, and the Teriyaki Turkey meatball meal had 925 calories. This airline, regarded as the best on-time and oldest U.S, carrier may come back and surprise us.
Coming in dead last, Frontier Airlines was unwilling to give Platkin nutritional information about its food options. That’s not a huge surprise for an airline that went from a “Low Cost Carrier” (the category of Jet Blue, Southwest and Virgin America) to a an “Ultra-Low Cost Carrier” with an emphasis on cramming in lots of seats and cutting costs everywhere. However, it is pretty clear that its snacks available for purchase are low in nutritional value, including potato chips, Twizzlers and Almond M&Ms. If you need to eat while in the air and can’t bring your own food, Platkin suggested the beef jerky, which has 120 calories, although high in sodium.
Admittedly, the pickings are slim, but at least consumers are better informed
(Photo: Texnik via Wikipedia)