Which Airlines Serve Pre-Departure Beverages and Meals In Domestic First Class

Oct 7, 2013

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People always complain that flying “ain’t what it used to be”, but I disgaree with that- airlines have been upping their game over the past couple years, sometimes offering a pretty impressive meal and wine/premium cocktail service. Granted, I rarely have a meal on a plane that would compare to even a mid-grade restaurant and often food options turn out to be inedible (like my recent Cheateaubriand on American from Madrid to JFK- it was inedible- stay tuned for that report).

Predeparture beverages (when you get a drink during boarding and before takeoff) are a nice perk too, but lately I have noticed that they are not always served – not even water or juice – which got me thinking about which airlines offer a pre-departure beverage as well as their first class meal options when flying domestically.

Pre-departure drinks are expected in first class, but not always delivered.
Pre-departure drinks are expected in first class, but not always delivered.

While pre-departure drinks are an expected perk on first class flights, oftentimes they are not served for a variety of reasons and mitigating circumstances. Because of the expansive list of variables, most airlines don’t mention a pre-departure drink as one of their first or business class services, in case the commitment can’t be fulfilled. On one recent flight my flight was delayed at the gate for mechanical reasons for 30 minutes and the flight attendant still refused to offer pre-departure drinks, which made me curious to see what the actual policy is, so  I tweeted @Americanair:

American Airlines explained that drinks are served "when operationally possible."
American Airlines explained that drinks are served “when operationally possible.”

Their polite but somewhat vague reply prompted me to investigate further, and I found some interesting insight from flight attendant Heather Poole on her Galley Gossip blog. Reasons why you may miss out on your complimentary cocktail or champagne before take-off include:

  • The flight is running late and the service would cause further delays.
  • Depending on the layout of the plane, the position of the boarding door may mean that passengers would not be able to get to the economy section if a drink service was being carried out.
  • Laws regarding alcohol in the country you are either flying too or from when traveling internationally could mean that drinks cannot be served. Even while flying domestically, some states (especially in the South) don’t allow alcohol to be served before noon on Sundays.
  • Staff may be busy checking emergency equipment, hanging up coats, or getting passengers seated. This is increasingly becoming an issue after staff cutbacks mean that there literally aren’t always enough hands on deck to do everything.
  • FAA rules cite that all the overhead bins have to be closed before take-off, and that takes precedence over serving drinks.
  • The catering truck could be delayed and then there would be nothing to serve.
  • Even if the catering carts are loaded, they still need to be organized to make sure everything is in order for the service during the flight, which could mean that pre-departure beverages are then sacrificed.
Delta lie-flat BusinessElite cabin
On premium routes such as JFK-LAX, you’ll be offered an enhanced meal selection.

While the serving of pre-departure drinks depends on all of the points mentioned, here are the policies for the major airlines when it comes to meal service during domestic flights in first class.


American Airlines offers chef-driven meals in First Class on flights over 2 hours that operate within traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner times. On flights greater than 2.5 hours that fall outside of a traditional meal time, a snack service will be provided. When it comes to pre-departure beverages, it it suppose to be a policy on domestic flights, but as I said above, I’ve found it to be hit or miss lately and it depends on operational factors.

American tries to offer chef-driven meals on-board their flights.
American Airlines tries to offer chef-driven meals on-board their flights.

Some examples of their meals include:

Non-Transcontinental Domestic Menu Examples

  • Buffalo chicken salad garnished with bleu cheese
  • Stuffed pasta shells with roasted sundried tomatoes and Pomodoro sauce

Transcontinental Menu Examples

  • Grilled salmon with lemon caper sauce served over orzo with a side of grilled root vegetables
  • Grilled beef filet, topped with wild mushroom ragout and merlot sauce, served with roasted vegetables

Even on transcontinental flights, the options depend on departure time, and for red-eyes and late-night departures, usually a lighter snack selection is served.


Delta offers a pre-departure drink on all their domestic flights. Beer, wine, cocktails, you name it – if they have it on-board it’s offered as an option. Delta’s First Class Meal Service is based on distance as well as departure time. Here are the offerings based on distance:

Delta serves meals onboard their flights that are greater than 900 miles.
Delta serves meals on-board their flights that are greater than 900 miles.

0-250 Miles (up to 1 hour): Complimentary snacks include peanuts, pretzels or Biscoff cookies.

251-899 Miles (1 to 2 hours): Morning flights (departures 05:00-09:45) offer just complimentary snacks such as peanuts, pretzels, Biscoff cookies, biscotti, bananas, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and Quaker Oats chewy granola bars. All other flights offer peanuts, pretzels, apples, Twix, Toblerone, Sun Chips and Walkers shortbread cookies.

900-1,499 Miles (approximately 2-3.5 hours): A meal will be served during meal times, in addition to the snack selection.

More than 1,500 Miles (3.5 hours +): A meal will be served in addition to a snack selection.

Flights between New York (JFK) and Los Angeles and San Francisco:
The BusinessElite dining experience includes a three-course menu designed by Chef Michael Chiarello. His menu selections include an antipasto plate, entrée and dessert course, featuring fine cheeses and gelato.

Alaska, Hawaii and International Flights: You’ll be served a meal on select Alaska and Hawaii flights (based on flight times).

US Airways

US Airways offers a pre-departure drink on all their domestic flights, however when it comes to implementation, sometimes it doesn’t happen, so just keep that in mind.

US Airways offers a meal on board flights greater then 3.5 hours.
US Airways offers a meal on board flights greater then 3.5 hours.

US Airways meals are based on flight times as well as the departure time.

Less than 1.5 hours: Snacks include a Biscoff sweet biscuit or savory cocktail mix.

1.5 – 3.5 hours: A new upgraded snack basket with specialty snacks with be offered.

3.5+ hours: More substantial meals and a larger selection of vegetarian-friendly dishes.

Breakfast (5 am – 9 am): Includes a choice of 2 hot entrees, or a lighter dish like yogurt and granola served with a warm biscuit and fresh fruit.

Lunch (9:01 am – 3 pm): Starts with a fresh salad and an appetizer,  a hot entrée such as roasted teriyaki chicken breast and finishes with a dessert.

Dinner (3:01 pm – 8 pm): Includes a fresh salad, appetizer, hot entrée such as braised short beef rib with red-skin mashed potatoes, and a dessert like cheesecake.

Snack Basket offerings include: Snyder’s Pretzels, Boulder Canyon Kettle Chips, Emerald Walnuts & Almonds, Chocobillys Chocolate Chunk Cookies, Nature’s Bakery Whole Wheat Fig Bar or Nonni’s Biscotti.


United offers meals based on flight distance.
United offers meals based on flight distance.

United meals are primarily based on distance like those of Delta and US Airways. When it comes to pre-departure beverages, they do offer customers a choice of what they would like to drink while on the ground, and it clearly states that on their website. Options can typically include water, juice, sodas and a choice of beer, wine and even cocktails depending on the departure time.

Less than 220 miles (approximately 1 hour or less): Biscoff cookies or pretzels served with the beverage of your choice.

220–699 miles (approximately 1–2 hours): Warmed- up all-natural breakfast scones or a selection of snacks and fresh fruit.

700–2,299 miles (approximately 2–5 hours): A full meal service during traditional meal times or a lighter snack in between traditional meal times.

Greater than 2,300 miles (approximately 5 hours or longer): A full meal service followed by a pre-arrival snack or a lighter snack on late-night departures followed by a pre-arrival warm scone.

On United Express flights longer than 700 miles (approximately two hours), United First and United Business customers receive complimentary snackboxes featuring high-quality, brand-name foods.

So the options seem pretty standard across the board with full meals being served only on longer flights that operate during traditional meal times, and few clear answers on the pre-departure beverage policy. It seems like the legacy carriers do still want to give their premium passengers a nice pre-flight send off, but that more and more operations issues, turnaround times, and galley limitations cut into the service.

But I’m curious to hear what your recent experiences with it have been? Were you given a pre-departure drink or did you have to wait until you were airborne to toast?

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