American Airlines said Tuesday that it plans to offer free meals to everyone in economy on two cross-country routes starting May 1.
The decision by the world's biggest airline comes a month after Delta Air Lines announced that it would restore free meals in economy on a dozen long-haul U.S. routes this spring.
Airlines dropped free sandwiches and other meals in economy on domestic flights after brutal downturns in 2001 and 2008. They have been slow to bring back food despite rising profits, leading to grumbling by some passengers.
Fares on transcontinental flights can be very similar — five airlines are offering the same $184 price for a one-way nonstop flight from New York to Los Angeles on June 1. So airlines are looking for an edge with touches such as better seats and, now, free food.
Vice president of marketing Fernand Fernandez said some of American's best customers fly those transcontinental routes and the airline wants to give them better service "in this competitive market."
It's unclear how far the food trend will go, but airlines can afford a few sandwiches and cheese platters after posting huge profits in recent years due to strong travel demand and cheaper fuel. American Airlines Group Inc. earned $2.7 billion last year.
American said it will open the kitchen on nonstop flights between New York and both Los Angeles and San Francisco. The airline says that passengers will get a continental breakfast or a sandwich wrap, chips and dessert, or they can pick a vegetarian meal or a fruit-and-cheese plate.
That leaves United Airlines as the biggest U.S. carrier with no plans yet to bring back free meals in economy on any domestic flights.
Last month, after Delta's food announcement, United's second-ranking executive suggested that his airline wasn't thinking about adding free meals. On Tuesday a spokesman said United is always looking at opportunities to stay competitive.