Passengers aboard Alaska Airlines will either need to bring $5 or a sack lunch if they want to eat a meal on most flights longer than three hours.
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The Seattle-based airline on Aug. 1 will start charging for all in-flight meals, except flights to the East Coast. The airline will offer meals more substantial than turkey sandwiches to economy class, but for a price. First-class passengers will see no change in service, said Alaska marketing director Greg Latimer.
On flights shorter than three hours, such as those from Juneau to Seattle, a snack and a nonalcoholic beverage are still free, he added.
"People are simply not used to getting a meal," said Anchorage travel agent Carol Manley, with Custom Trip Planning. "I just tell my clients don't get on the plane hungry."
Passengers are more upset about the prices going up, and because they are paying more, some think they shouldn't have to spend extra for meals on board, said Cyndi Isaak, owner of Cyndi's Cruise & Travel, on Douglas Island.
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Alaska's new service follows several major domestic airlines that began charging for meals in recent years to cut costs. The industry, among other factors, has been hurting from high fuel prices, and Latimer said that was one of the reasons for charging for meals.
Other airlines are offering heartier meals, and Alaska officials say they want to stay competitive. The airline used to offer hot meals on flights in the 1980s and 1990s, before the industry went into a slump, Latimer said.
Alaska expects to save "several million dollars" by switching to the meals-for-purchase program, Latimer said. He also expects the company will not make any profits from the sales, but break even because the airline is overstocking flights with meals to ensure that anyone who wants a meal gets one.
Alaska initiated the meals-for-purchase program last year on flights from Alaska to Mexico, in which 30 percent of passengers bought meals, according to the airline. Three percent of those flights sold out of meals, Latimer said.
Breakfast will be a skillet with potatoes, scrambled eggs and reindeer sausage. On lunch and dinner flights, passengers can choose between a turkey chipotle sandwich wrap and a quarter-pound cheeseburger with potato chips.
"Our experience in Mexico is that passengers are splitting that," said Latimer, of the cheeseburgers.
According to news reports on other airlines, meals range from $3 to $10. Latimer said the airline stuck with $5 because it was easier to make change. In the coming years, the company wants flights to be equipped to receive credit card transactions.
"At $10, you really need to deliver an outstanding meal," Latimer said.
East Coast destinations include Washington, D.C.; Newark, N.J.; Miami; and Orlando, Fla. For now, passengers on those flights will receive the free turkey sandwich, but the airline wants to phase in the new program for those routes, Latimer said.
In May, the airline began offering Red Bull energy drinks on its flights, available free in first class and for $3 in the main cabin. Last fall, the airline made available Alaskan Amber beer for $5 in economy class.
Alaska Airlines and sister carrier Horizon Air together serve 88 cities throughout Alaska, the Lower 48, Canada and Mexico.