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Continental Ends Free Meals on Most Flights

Continental announced today that it will discontinue free meals on most flights in favor of a for-purchase option. In a release, Continental said it "will change its in-flight meal service this fall by introducing a variety of high quality, healthy food choices for purchase in economy class on many U.S./Canada and certain Latin American routes. The airline will continue to offer complimentary food in the economy cabin on all intercontinental and certain other international routes, and on long-haul domestic routes over six hours."

Business- and first-class passengers will continue to receive complimentary meals.

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Continental seems alert to the negativity sure to follow such a move. The airline is quick to point out that "all of Continental's significant U.S. competitors either do not offer food or have already implemented food sales for economy class travelers," and also notes its ongoing customer-friendly initiatives, such as installing DirecTV and Wi-Fi (both of which come with a fee) and adding lie-flat beds in BusinessFirst.

Continental also tries to sell the switch as a good thing. In the statement, Jim Compton, executive vice president and chief marketing officer says, "We are improving our economy meal service with a high-quality, industry-leading food-for-purchase program that is consistent with the strong brand image and high service standards for which our customers recognize us.

"Our traditional free-food model has served us well for many years, but we need to change to reflect today's market and customer preferences." (Wait, whose preferences?)

But no matter how you slice it, the last bastion of free airline meals has pulled the plug. Few will lament the loss of the actual, often inedible food, but Continental's capitulation to economic pressure signals the end of an era. It's silly for one airline to offer more costly services when its competitors don't—unless, that is, you want to distinguish yourself from your competitors—especially when your industry and business model is on unstable footing. Honestly, I'm surprised it took so long for Continental to sink to the level of its peers.

As for how much meals will cost, Continental says it is still mulling over its menus and pricing. The typical airline pricing scheme puts sandwiches and entrees in the $6-$10 range, with snacks and breakfast items running between $3 and $7. My guess is Continental will end up with something along these lines.

Readers, what do you think? Do you miss the days of complimentary airline meals? Are the meals airlines sell any better than the ones they served for free? Leave a comment below with your thoughts. Thanks!

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