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Download this fact sheetAirline Food Report

 

A Review by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Fall 2003

Just in time for Thanksgiving travel, the doctors and nutritionists at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) have rated 10 of the top airlines for the availability of healthy vegetarian and vegan entrées.

Vegetarian and vegan (dairy- and egg-free) meals are naturally higher in fiber and lower in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Unfortunately, healthy food seems to be one of the first things to go when airlines seek to cut costs. As airlines have moved away from standard menus in favor of buy-on-board meals, passengers’ access to meatless and dairy-free food has decreased dramatically.

At the time of PCRM’s last Airline Food Report in 1996, most large airlines offered vegetarian or vegan meals. But today, such major airlines as Continental have discontinued their vegetarian options. With many healthy, cholesterol-free items now gone, passengers looking for wholesome meals often have two choices: pack their own food or go hungry.

Bad Timing

It is the wrong time to cut plant-based entrées from airline menus. More than 44 million adult Americans are now significantly overweight, and diet-related disease rates are skyrocketing. Seatbelt extenders are in high demand. And pity the traveler in seats B or E, those middle seats where travelers get squeezed by super-sized customers. While airlines can’t stop the obesity epidemic—any more than they can make all smokers quit—they can model a healthier lifestyle by serving more healthful food.

A nutritional analysis of two meals demonstrates the difference between non-vegetarian and vegetarian fare. A ham sandwich (offered by United) averages 394 calories, 22.5 grams of fat, seven grams of saturated fat, and 59 milligrams of cholesterol. American Airlines’ vegan bistro bag (featuring a veggie pita, baby carrots, pretzels, and an apple) totals 253 calories, one gram of fat, zero grams of saturated fat, and seven grams of fiber.

Travelers wanting to prevent diabetes, cancer, and other chronic health problems will look for vegetarian entrées. Unfortunately, these healthy options seem to be disappearing from the carts that roll down the center aisle of the aircraft.

The Rankings

Superb Service: Song.
This airline, which is operated by Delta, offers healthy vegetarian and vegan meals as part of the buy-on-board menu on all flights.

Plan Ahead: Alaska, American, United.
These airlines offer vegetarian and/or vegan options, but travelers must usually special-order such healthy meals before their flight.

Falling Behind: American Eagle, Continental, Delta, Midwest, Northwest, US Airways.
These airlines make only a rudimentary effort at providing vegetarian and vegan meals—or they offer none at all.

What the Airlines Offer

Airline

Vegetarian meals?

Vegan meals?

Alaska Airlines

Special order

No

American Airlines

Special order

Special order

American Eagle Airlines

Breakfast only

No

Continental Airlines

Breakfast only

No

Delta Air Lines: Buy-on-board

Yes

Breakfast only

Delta Air Lines: Standard meals

No

No

Midwest Airlines

Breakfast only

No

Northwest Airlines:Buy-on-board

Breakfast only

No

Northwest Airlines: Standard meals

Special order

No

Song

Yes

Yes

United Airlines

Special order

Special order

US Airways

Breakfast only

No

 

The Methodology

Research was conducted in October of 2003. Only domestic flights were considered. Meals served in first class were not considered. Some major airlines, such as Southwest, AirTran, and America West, were not reviewed because they do not offer any meal service for economy class. Many airlines now offer a buy-on-board option for travelers wishing to purchase a meal for their flight; others still provide standard meals on some flights. PCRM dietitians reviewed both types of meal service by locating menu information on airlines’ Web sites when it was available and contacting the airlines for additional menus and information.

Buy-on-Board

Six reviewed airlines now offer buy-on-board meals. Four of these exclusively serve buy-on-board, and two (Delta and Northwest) offer buy-on-board on some flights and standard meals on others. Of these six airlines, only two offered vegetarian lunch or dinner options. Breakfast choices were a little better for vegetarians, although only the same two airlines offered a vegan breakfast item.

Buy-on-board programs do not offer the option of special meals (including vegetarian or vegan, kosher, low cholesterol, low sugar). Also, many available options—such as ham or roast beef sandwiches—are high in fat and cholesterol.

Song, a new low-fare carrier operated by Delta, stands out in the buy-on-board category. It not only offers a variety of vegetarian and vegan breakfast items, but also consistently serves vegetarian and vegan lunch and dinner items. The current menu offers a vegetarian Garden Greek Salad and a vegan Rock n Roll Sushi meal. Veggie sushi is a healthful meal that averages 286 calories, three grams of fat, zero grams of saturated fat, and two grams of fiber. Those looking for a healthy meal will find it easily on Song.

Many buy-on-board meals are far from healthful. But Northwest serves one of the worst: a ham, salami, and provolone cheese sandwich on ciabatta, plus chips and a chocolate bar. This meal totals approximately 800 calories, 40 grams of fat, and 20 grams of saturated fat.

Standard Meals

Of the airlines reviewed, six still offer free in-flight meals, depending on the length of the flight. Vegetarian meals never appear on most airlines’ standard menus. Travelers are usually stuck choosing between one high-fat, high-cholesterol entrée and another.

In the past, many health-conscious travelers called ahead to airlines to request a vegetarian or vegan meal. However, such special-order meals are no longer widely available. On four of the seven airlines offering free in-flight meals, a special meal (such as vegetarian) can be ordered in advance. However, only two of these airlines—American and United—offered a vegan option.

Continental Airlines recently eliminated all special meals. This leaves a traveler with special dietary needs, or anyone simply looking for a healthier meal, without any options other than packing their own food.

Top choices in this category include American Airlines’ special-order vegan bistro bag. But passengers flying American should be careful to call ahead. Those who don’t special-order this meal will be stuck with a turkey and cheese sandwich, chips, carrots, and a cookie, which total 705 calories and 33 grams of fat.

An In-depth View

Airline

Type of meal service

Vegetarian or vegan breakfast option?

Vegetarian or vegan lunch/dinner option?

Special order vegetarian/vegan meals available?

Alaska Airlines

Standard only: on flights longer than three hours

Vegetarian but not vegan

No

Vegetarian but not vegan

American Airlines

Standard only: on flights longer than four hours

Vegetarian but not vegan

No

Both vegetarian and vegan

American Eagle Airlines

Buy-on-board on all flights

Vegetarian but not vegan

No

 

Continental Airlines

Standard only: on flights during meal times and longer than two hours

Vegetarian but not vegan

No

No

Delta Air Lines

Buy-on-board: testing began August 11, and the program has continued since then on select flights

Both vegetarian and vegan

Vegetarian but not vegan

 

Standard: on flights without buy-on-board or on flights longer than 1750 miles or four hours in coach

No

No

No

Midwest Airlines

Buy-on-board on all flights

Vegetarian but not vegan

No

 

Northwest Airlines

Buy-on-board: on flights between two and four hours long

Vegetarian but not vegan

No

 

Standard: on flights longer than four hours

Vegetarian but not vegan

No

Vegetarian but not vegan

Song

Buy-on-board on all flights

Both vegetarian and vegan

Both vegetarian and vegan

 

United Airlines

Standard only: on flights longer than 3.5 hours

Vegetarian but not vegan

No

Both vegetarian and vegan

US Airways

Buy-on-board only: on flights longer than 700 miles

Vegetarian but not vegan

No

 

 

Recommendations

The doctors and nutritionists at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine urge all airlines to include one option that is both vegan and kosher in buy-on-board and standard meal services. This one option should be designed to satisfy all special meal requests. This would mean people looking for vegetarian, heart-healthy, kosher, or high-fiber meals would always have an appropriate menu item available when they fly. Many tasty, healthy options would fulfill this requirement. Possible menu items include:

  • roasted veggie hoagie with hummus
  • bean burrito with pinto beans, rice, and salsa
  • hearty green salad topped with chopped vegetables, baked tofu, and beans
  • whole grain bread with almond butter and strawberry preserves
  • curried tofu salad sandwich with lettuce and tomato in a pita

Offering such meals would both increase customer satisfaction and save the airlines money. In addition, these vegan items would provide an optimal choice for any passenger looking for a healthy meal.

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