It's Personal: Airline-food economics - All demand, short supply

Posted: April 27, 2012

There was an Alcatrazlike quality to it, the way it all went down Wednesday in Row 24 of US Airways Flight 1419, as the tiny food cart on my jammed Philadelphia-to-Los Angeles flight rolled up.

The snack cart, we had been warned by a flight attendant over the public-address system, might run out of food. This was largely by design, she explained, not stocking enough food for everyone on board. Oh, and what was on the menu - an Italian club wrap, a chicken salad, a fruit-and-cheese offering, snack boxes - would have to be purchased.

Now would be a good time to point out that this was a nonstop, five-plus-hour flight between two of the largest cities in one of the most advanced economies in the 21st-century world.

Seated three rows from the back, I was mildly horrified by this brazen attempt at a preemptive apology. It was as if the airline were saying, "I dare you to be disappointed, I dare you to eat lunch." But I hoped for the best, as did the passenger to my right, retired South Jersey public-school principal Mike Muldoon.

In November, Muldoon was on a 6 1/2-hour American Airlines flight from Dallas to Hawaii that ran out of food before it reached his row. A steward was kind enough to share his personal fruit stash with the 62-year-old from Franklinville, who has diabetes.

After watching everyone ahead of us get served, the flight attendant finally arrived at Row 24 - just three rows from the only two bathrooms for everyone in coach. This was a big plane, an A-320 jetliner. We're talking people, plenty of them.

My hands were sweating, as if I were doubled down at a blackjack table waiting for the dealer to flip me a king and an ace. "I'd like an Italian club wrap," I said, believing that, somehow, positivity would prevail against frightfully long odds.

"I am out of the wrap," she replied, in a polite but bloodless tone that felt more "Que sera, sera, coach captive," less "Oh, yes, Richard Branson has just introduced competing Philly-to-L.A. flights on Virgin, how can we thank you for your $489 ticket and $25 baggage fee, dear lady?"

I sighed. So this is what modern travel has come to, I reflected: Relentless airline cost-cutting and high fuel prices have turned what was once a fanciful, affordable luxury into a form of consumer corporal punishment. What's next: oxygen masks for premium customers only?

"What sandwiches do you have?" I inquired, refusing to sulk right then and there.

The attendant gave her cart a sober scan before rattling off what the Twittersphere would hashtag as a jaw-dropping #InventoryFail: "I am out of sandwiches. I am out of the chicken salad."

My mind went into overload as dread compounded hunger. There was little else in terms of lunch-worthy food, so it was even lovelier to learn that, of the two snack boxes offered, only one was left containing meat.

I snatched the last $6 CafePlus snack box. (An even unluckier passenger behind me groaned.) I was rewarded with a plastic-wrapped cardboard packet tantalizingly illustrated with pictures of fresh green apples, chocolate, and what appeared to be freshly grated cheese. But it was featherlight, suggesting a form of false advertising that, sadly, came true.

Lunch, as some might generously call it, consisted of an 0.8-ounce pack of beef salami slices (no fork); a 0.75-ounce cylinder of cheese spread; a few crackers; a few pretzel crisps; a 0.75-ounce pack of dried fruit; a 0.56-ounce bag of nuts; and a single shortbread cookie. Oh, and a plastic knife.

A disappointed Muldoon didn't even bother ordering. Instead, he reached into the carry-on bag stuffed between his cramped legs. Before I knew it, he was chomping through a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on white and an apple brought from home.

A guy who shoots himself with insulin five times a day can't play it too safe.

"I had this as a backup," said Muldoon, whose ticket cost $575. "I'm no fool."

He chuckled, but in a way that implied disappointment, not enjoyment: "What do they say, 'Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me?' You live and you learn."

I opened my salami packet; my fingers were inevitably smeared with grease. Ditto with the restaurant-butter-size portion of cheese spread. I scavenged for a napkin: none. I asked the flight attendant, now two rows behind me, if she had one.

"Not on this cart," she replied, and tossed a dispassionate nod about 15 rows away, where another attendant was tending to the beverage cart.

As I struggled to comprehend all this, a man's voice came over the P.A. system: "We are recycling on today's flight," he said, urging caution in assembling our waste.

How magnanimous. I wanted to shout back, "Give me a napkin, and I'll let you recycle it, for crying out loud!"

About 10 minutes later, I got my napkin. No charge.

Que sera, sera, especially if you're flying coach.


Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @panaritism.

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