Continental stops serving free meals on flights under six hours

With its competitors doing away with free food in economy years ago, it's a wonder that Continental Airlines didn't drop the perk earlier.

But the last airline to offer free meals to passengers on flights of three hours or more announced this week that it will discontinue gratis chow on all flights under six hours starting this fall. Continental, the country's fifth-largest airline, positioned the reversal as a way to offer its passengers healthier food options.

"We're hearing from customers that they wanted more choices," said Mary Clark, an airline spokeswoman. "In order to be able to provide that higher quality food, with more variety and healthier choices -- in order to provide that depth of service -- it changed our food model."

But the new fee-for-food service is really about adding to the beleaguered carriers' bottom line.

Continental expects to save $35 million a year by not providing passengers with free food. This figure doesn't count additional revenue the carrier could reap by charging for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Under the new program, passengers on flights of less than two hours will still receive complementary drinks and snacks, depending on the time of day. But hungry travelers on flights between two to six hours won't be so lucky. They will have to pay -- even for snacks. Those on routes of six hours or longer will receive complementary meals, Clark said. American Airlines also continues to offer free food on international routes that are in the air during mealtimes.

Continental doesn't yet know what its menu choices will be this fall, other than to say that it will offer passengers "gourmet sandwiches, salads and wraps, and several choices for breakfast" for a fee, Clark said.

Most carriers began charging for food years ago as a way to earn extra money after the recession prompted fewer people to fly. The fees are part of a larger trend to require passengers to pay separately for services such as checking bags, rebooking flights, in-flight entertainment, and blankets that used to be included in an overall ticket price.

Airline revenues from these fees almost quadrupled since 2008 to $10.3 billion, according to IdeaWorks.

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