First Class Dining Policies of the Major Domestic Airlines

Aug 27, 2014

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Over the last few years – and even in recent weeks – major domestic airlines have been attempting to up their First Class dining game, achieving varying degrees of success. With food, wine and cocktail and service options going through some changes this fall, I thought it was a good time to take a look at the landscape of First Class dining policies aboard the major domestic airlines: American, US Airways, Delta and United.

Each of these airlines offers a range of dining options depending on the distance and duration of the flight, and American, US Airways and United are instituting the biggest changes. All these carriers have similar official policies of serving pre-departure beverages prior to takeoff in First Class (and in the case of American, US Airways and United, warm nuts as well), but be aware that this service can be affected by operational factors like the need to facilitate boarding access or staff being needed elsewhere on the plane.

American's First Class dining service includes full meals on flights longer than
American will now serve full meals in First Class on flights over 2 hours and 45 minutes long.

American & US Airways

As these two carriers continue to merge, their First Class meal service will begin to merge as well. Both carriers recently announced that as of September 1, 2014, they’ll be scaling back their First Class meal service and switching from full meals to snacks on flights of 2 hours and 45 minutes or less.

As an American Airlines Platinum elite, I’ve had several opportunities to try the cuisine in American’s premium classes, and I’ve rarely been impressed – and sometimes, as in the case of my transcon first class flight from LAX to JFK, I’ve been downright disappointed. I’ve had limited personal experience with US Airways’ First Class, but I enjoyed the food in the carrier’s Envoy (Business) Class on a recent transatlantic flight from Philadelphia to Athens. It will be interesting to see if the two carriers can find an appetizing middle ground in the blending of their First Class service.

Each carrier will offer the following First Class meal service and options between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., listed by flight time and distance:

American Airlines options, per flight times/distance:

  • Less than 1 hour: Packaged snacks (e.g., fig bars, cookies or pretzels)
  • 1:00 to 2:45:  Snack basket with choices that include fresh fruit and sandwiches
  • 2:45 to 3:30: Warm nuts and beverage service, as well as three-course meal service with a cookie for dessert
  • 3:30 to 4:30: Warm nuts and beverage service, and your meal service will include cake for dessert
  • 4:30 +: Warm nuts and beverage service, and your meal service will also include a choice of ice cream or a fruit-and-cheese plate for dessert, as well as pre-arrival snacks.

For the time being, American will still offer its usual three-course meal service on some flights that are less than 2 hours and 45 minutes long, such as Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD), and ORD to New York’s LaGuardia (LGA) and JFK airports. You’ll also continue to have the option to reserve your choice of entree up to 30 days in advance of your First Class (or Business Class) flight.

American’s wine list was created by winemaker Ken Chase, and the First Class selections offered on North American flights include a Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc from the Napa Valley, an Italian Prosecco and a Chilean Malbec. 

US Airways’ options, per flight time/distance:

  • Up to 699 miles (under 2 hours): Packaged snacks (e.g., fig bars, cookies or pretzels)
  • 700-999 miles (2:00 to 2:45): Snack basket with choices that include fresh fruit and sandwiches
  • 1,000-1,298 miles (2:45 to 3:30): Warm nuts and beverage service, as well as three-course meal service with a cookie for dessert
  • 1,299-2,200 miles (3:30 to 4:30): Warm nuts and beverage service, and your meal service will include cake for dessert
  • 2,200 miles+ (4:30+): Warm nuts and beverage service, and your meal service will also include a choice of ice cream or a fruit-and-cheese plate for dessert.

Flights between Hawaii and either Dallas (DFW) or Chicago (ORD) will also include a custom sundae and pre-arrival snacks.

The wines generally offered in First Class on US Airways’ North American flights are Two Tone Farm Merlot from California’s Napa Valley and Labrune Chardonnay Vine de France.

Delta serves meals in First Class for flights over 2 hours and 900 miles.


Amidst a slew of negative changes to their Skymiles frequent flyer program, Delta’s First Class dining program appears to be holding steady, though there are rumors that they’ll be enhancing their offering sometime this fall (perhaps due to United’s recent up-gauge of first class food?).

For most of Delta’s North American flights, the First Class meal menu was designed by Napa Valley-based chef and restaurateur Michael Chiarello, who focuses on a blend of Southern Italian and northern California cuisine. His menus include antipasto plates, different flavors of gelato, and cheeses that often hail from California wine country. Aboard flights to and from Mexico, Delta’s First Class menu was created by Miami-based and James Beard-award-winning chef and restaurateur Michelle Bernstein, who is known for highlighting Latin flavors. Delta’s First Class wine program was designed by Napa-based master sommelier Andrea Robinson.

Delta’s First class snack and meal service is based on the following flight distances/lengths:

  • Up to 250 miles (up to 1 hour): Light snacks (e.g., peanuts, pretzels and cookies)
  • 251-899 miles (1 to 2 hours): Morning flights (departures between 5-9:45 a.m.) offer the same light snacks as shorter flights, as well as heartier offerings like bananas, packaged muffins, and granola bars. Flights at other times offer an array of snacks that include nuts, apples, candy bars, packaged chips and cookies.
  • 900-1,499 miles (2 to 3:30): A three-course meal will be served during meal times, in addition to the snack selection.
  • 1,500 miles+ (3:30+): A three-course meal with several entree selections and expanded dessert options will be served, in addition to a snack selection.
United is enhancing their first class meals on domestic flights.
United is enhancing their First Class meals on domestic flights.


Ever since its merger with Continental, United has been criticized by its most loyal customers for operational missteps, poor service, and lately, switching their MileagePlus frequent flyer program to a revenue-based system. In what appears to be a bid to win back the hearts of premium customers, now through February 2015, United will be expanding its First Class meal service on North American flights that are 2 hours and 700 miles or longer, and adding Prosecco to its present red and white options. Aboard flights of less than 2 hours and 699 miles, United will continue to offer a selection of snacks (e.g., cookies or pretzels) and/or warm breakfast breads.

  • 700–2,299 miles (2 to 5 hours): These flights will still include full meal service during traditional meal times, or a lighter snack in between traditional meal times. Throughout September, the airline will begin to roll out four new entrée salad choices and eight new sandwich/wrap options in First Class (as well as Business Class) at lunch, dinner or both, depending on the length/distance of the flight. These new meal options will include an Asian-style noodle salad, prosciutto on tomato focaccia, a Thai-style chicken wrap, a Cobb salad wrap, and ham and Swiss on a pretzel baguette. The new entrees will be paired with a gluten-free soup, bread and a cookie, but note that not all of these options will be available on each flight.
  • 2,300 miles+ (5 hours+): On North American flights in this range, you’ll still receive full meal service (as well as pre-arrival snack service), but for dinner you’ll have enhanced pasta, chicken or beef options with newly designed recipes. During late-night departures, a light snack will be served, followed by a pre-arrival warm scone.

On United Express flights longer than 700 miles (and about 2 hours in length), United First and Business customers will receive snack boxes.

Between November, 2014 andFebruary, 2015, United will expand from snack service to full meal service on all of its shorter-haul flights. The airline will continue to offer full meals on flights that currently receive a full meal service in the following markets for flights of less than 900 miles: Chicago to/from Boston, Denver, New York/La Guardia and Newark; Denver to/from Houston Intercontinental and Los Angeles; and Newark to/from Atlanta.

Have you recently traveled throughout North America in First Class on a major domestic airline? Please share your experiences of the food service in the comments below. 

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