IN THE 1950s—when the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a cartel of airlines, used to set fare levels and service quality on international routes—there were few differences between major carriers. One way to persuade passengers to choose one airline over another was to offer better meals as entertainment on board. And so an arms race to serve fancier food on transatlantic flights began. It came to an end in 1958, when SAS, a Scandinavian carrier, was fined $20,000 by IATA for serving open sandwiches that, contrary to IATA’s rules, contained overly fancy ingredients such as ox tongue, lettuce hearts and asparagus. The quality of food on board flights has fallen greatly since. Liberalisation of the aviation industry in the 1980s and 1990s, with IATA losing its power over fares, has meant that most carriers now compete on price rather than service quality. 

But there are signs that some airlines in America may be getting into a new arms race—or, put another way, a food fight. It seems unthinkable, at a time when legroom is shrinking and reserving a seat means paying extra, that an airline would give, say, complimentary sparkling wine to economy-class flyers. But that is exactly what Delta, America’s second-biggest carrier, began offering on its international flights this month. The airline will also provide “upgraded flatware” (crockery and cutlery) and “customer experience menu cards” that detail the food and beverage options and—far more useful, from Gulliver’s perspective—the timing of those services. Business-class Delta flyers out of Asian airports are also being treated to “regionally sourced cuisine”. And later this month they will also be able to pre-order their meal choices.

Not to be outdone, United, a rival which is often mocked for poor service, is adding a range of new food and drink offerings, including organic beef jerky, breakfast sandwiches with cage-free eggs, and a craft vodka from the makers of the popular Buffalo Trace bourbon. These items, however, will all have to be bought.

If this is not quite a trend, it is at least the start of a trend—notable not for any revolution in in-flight dining but simply for what it is not. The conventional wisdom in recent years has been that airlines are competing on price, and pretty much only on price. (There may be a few exceptions such as the rise of business-class-only airlines and efforts to avoid the humiliation of, say, killing animals or beating up passengers on board). And indeed, in some areas that is the case. For instance American Airlines, the world’s biggest carrier, has just announced that it is bringing basic economy—a fare class that excludes frills such as a checked-baggage allowance or seat selection—to international flights. Likewise, Delta and its British joint-venture partner, Virgin Atlantic, are rolling out an “Economy Light” class, with similar restrictions.

In other words, airlines are still cutting costs with bare-bones service and still trying to wring extra cash out of flyers. But on food, something seems to be different. At least two of the big airlines appear to think that people will choose them, given comparable routes and fares, on the basis of a tastier experience. For airlines looking to differentiate themselves, it is a far cheaper solution than providing extra legroom, which can come at the expense of valuable rows of seats. It may just be a coincidence that Delta and United are upgrading at the same time. Or it may be the start of a bigger food fight to come—one that many travellers would surely savour.