Opinion - Out of Office

Airlines then and now: Why a meal on a plane can feel like a flight back in time

Key Points
  • Business and leisure travel by air has never been cheaper or safer, but many passengers still pine for old-school perks.
  • Recent economy flights to Peru revealed classic in-flight service still takes wing in other parts of the world.
Before bashing the airlines, consider how business trips have improved

As each passing week brings news of yet another air-travel public relations disaster to light, it's easy to forget that flying — for business or pleasure — has never been cheaper or safer.

The flying public may think the sun has set on the halcyon days of glamorous air travel forever — and when it comes to flying in perks-laden style, complete with free meals and complimentary checked bags, they may be right — but survey after survey shows that cost and safety, along with timeliness, are what really matters to consumers most.

Thanks to improvements in those areas, passenger satisfaction has reached all-time highs, according to J.D. Powers' 2017 North America Airline Satisfaction Study released in May, continuing a five-year upward trend. But overall satisfaction with fares and security hasn't kept many travelers from grumbling about the new rough-and-tumble reality of airplane cabins.

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Ranking America's top cities for business travel
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Taking the safety and affordability of today's airlines for granted, many passengers love to wax nostalgic about the way things used to be at 40,000 feet. And they're right: Today's lowest airfares get you ever less, apart from a safe and (usually) speedy trip.

For example, the latest "Basic Economy" fares from the Big Three U.S. carriers — American, Delta and United — limit carry-on items and restrict seat assignments and schedules, to varying degrees. Want to check a bag, eat something or sit in a better seat? You'd better prepare to pay up. Count yourself lucky if on most flights you're tossed a bag of peanuts — sorry, make that pretzels, packaged in a nut-free factory.

(Don't think what happens in the main cabin matters to business travelers? Well, then you haven't traveled on business recently — many employers require economy-fare travel, at least on domestic trips — or you have a really generous boss.)

Many of today's beleaguered passengers regard the mid-20th century as the heyday of air travel.
SuperStock | Getty Images

At 48, I'm old enough that I can recall what may have been the tail end of air travel's glory days. One of the clearest details I remember from my first-ever flight — back in 1981, aboard an Eastern Airlines Boeing 707 flying from New York to Orlando — is of the meal served: a cheese omelet with a hash brown on the side. A not-so-picky 13-year-old me was thrilled to eat breakfast, whatever the quality, six miles high in the air.

That's why a recent round-trip journey I took from New York to Cuzco, Peru, felt like a flight back in time, both literally — because Cuzco is one hour behind New York's Eastern Daylight Time zone — and figuratively, as the full service offered on board, even in my economy-class seat, likely hasn't been seen on a U.S. mainline carrier in at least a decade.

Four of the five legs I flew to Peru on Colombian carrier Avianca round-trip from New York had a flight time of between four and five hours and featured many of the erstwhile in-flight bells and whistles that once distinguished travel on most U.S. airlines, including free checked luggage, free entertainment and free meals. The shortest flight, a 1.5-hour hop between Cuzco and Lima was the most reminiscent of a trip back in the States, featuring only a drinks service aboard a bare-bones Airbus A319.

The efforts made to have a superior quality flight, service and travel product offer are compensated with ... preference, loyalty and acknowledgment.
Hernán Rincón
CEO and executive president of Avianca

On the longer flights, Avianca flight attendants — outfitted in sharp, candy apple red uniforms — offered me a choice of a pasta or meat entrée, accompanied by salad with dressing, roll with butter and a dessert. I washed it all down with drinks from two beverage services. Now, economy cabin flyers of any era have rarely raved about the quality of free cheap-seat eats, but the mere fact a complimentary meal materialized at my seat at all seemed a miracle. Compared to a typical flight back home, I may as well have found myself at the Four Seasons. The beef with rice really wasn't half bad.

Avianca's longer flights also offered seatback entertainment, with a selection of recent films, TV, music and games, and even USB charger ports — but no Wi-Fi. The best part, especially since my discount fare from New York to Cuzco and back required five flights total? The two bags checked free, plus carry-on allowances. (Even Avianca's cheapest "Super Promo" international fares allow passengers two checked bags weighing up to 50 pounds each.) It came as a relief not to stress about overhead space availability before boarding each connection.

Colombian carrier Avianca offers many in-flight perks long abandoned by mainline U.S. airlines.

It's no wonder Avianca scores 4 out of 5 possible stars on user-curated travel website TripAdvisor, compared to American's and United's three each (although Delta does also equal Avianca's rating). Industry wonks rate the Colombian carrier relatively highly, too, placing it 50 out of 100 global carriers, and first in South America, at the recent 2017 Skytrax: World Airline Awards. Among U.S. airlines, only Delta (32), Alaska (36) and Virgin America (43) placed higher.

"The efforts made to have a superior-quality flight, service and travel product offer are compensated with [customers'] preference, loyalty and acknowledgment," said Avianca CEO and Executive President Hernán Rincón, in an official response to the carrier's ranking. "All of this makes us want to work harder in large projects and small details."

To be fair, some U.S. carriers are beginning a limited reintroduction of free meals in economy on certain longer domestic routes. Delta, for instance, began serving food free of charge in the main cabin on certain flights between New York and California.

— By Kenneth Kiesnoski, associate editor. Before joining CNBC in 2013, Kiesnoski covered the travel and tourism industry for more than a decade at travel trade newspaper Travel Weekly, most recently in the capacity of Destinations Editor.