Continental was the last among its major competitors to hang on to the free meal concept in economy class, after the pressures of the economic downturn forced many to withdraw the service.
The carrier will continue to offer snacks such as pretzels and non-alcoholic drinks for free, but will charge for meals on domestic flights under six hours long. Longer-haul passengers and those in first or business class will still be offered free food.
Continental, the fourth biggest US carrier, added that its new food-for-sale programme would allow it to upgrade the quality of food on offer. It currently offers free drinks and snacks on flights lasting under two hours, with flights of between two and three hours offering a sandwich, roll or muffin. The airline gives out free hot sandwiches or hot meals on flights longer than three hours.
The changes are due to take effect this autumn.
Airlines struck by the impact of declining demand in the economic downturn have increasingly turned to a reduction in the number of free “extras” offered to customers, in order to reduce basic air fares.
The no-frills approach was first championed by budget carriers like the UK’s easyJet and Irish airline Ryanair, which last year caused a hubbub after announcing that it was considering charging customers £1 to use the on-board toilet facilities.