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McDonald’s Coffee Onboard: Upgrade or Downgrade?

It’s become an industry-wide marketing trend recently for airlines to serve branded coffee and promote the association. Boast the roast.

Delta, for example, began serving Starbucks brews on select flights in 2013, and has since expanded the offering worldwide. Here’s how Delta touted the global rollout, in 2015: “With a high-quality global brand like Starbucks now added to Delta’s core in-flight service product, we’ve taken another step to improve the travel experience. Our ongoing in-flight enhancements to food, beverages, seats and entertainment affirm Delta’s commitment to provide our customers with industry-leading amenities.”

As “amenities” go, premium coffee is cheap. And because it’s served across all classes of service, it’s an upgrade that a significant proportion of the airline’s customers can enjoy. In 2015, Delta estimated it served up 68 million cups of Starbucks Joe. That’s a lot of goodwill.

Elsewhere, Southwest serves its customers Community Signature Blend coffee. JetBlue has long served Dunkin’ Donuts coffee on its flights. And Virgin America’s onboard brew is from Philz, a boutique San Francisco coffee shop chain with cachet among the caffeine cognoscenti.

United this past summer began serving coffee from Illy, the Italian company best known for its espresso roasts, which also supplies coffee for Singapore Airlines.

The latest volley in the inflight coffee wars is a bit of a head-scratcher. WestJet, the Canadian low-cost carrier often compared favorably to Southwest, this week announced it has begun serving coffee from McDonald’s, the “uniquely rich, bold taste of McCafé Premium Roast Coffee that will surprise and delight guests on WestJet flights.”

McDonald’s isn’t Illy or Starbucks or Philz. But neither is WestJet Virgin America or Singapore Airlines. Still, the WestJet-McDonald’s association strikes me as a misstep.

McDonald’s coffee may be just fine—I’ve never tried it, in part because I wouldn’t expect great java from a company that specializes in cheap burgers. And that’s the marketing problem: Associating WestJet with the McDonald’s brand just doesn’t register as an upgrade.

As many others must have wondered, my first thought on hearing the news was this: If McDonald’s is an upgrade, what was WestJet serving before?

Reader Reality Check

Is the prospect of McDonald’s coffee an incentive to fly WestJet?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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