In 1987, former American Airlines president Bob Crandall made a notorious cost-saving measure of removing one olive from the top of salads served in first class. That savings of $40,000 in catering costs was big news then.
If only it were as simple as olives today.
The nation's biggest carriers now are faced with making painful cost cuts as jet fuel prices skyrocket. The sorry state of the airline business has forced United Airlines and US Airways to file for bankruptcy protection. Delta is close to filing. And now a mechanics strike at Northwest Airlines poses potential glitches in passenger travel that could have a ripple effect through the rest of the busy summer travel season.
What next? An olive garnish (oh, for the salad days of yore) seems inconsequential in these days when flying has been cut to the bare bones.
Which brings me to the unappetizing topic of airline meals. Domestic carriers have eliminated magazines, pillows and blankets. Now they're trying to starve us. Most major airlines have done away with free meals on flights of less than three hours.
Some airlines have done away with meals altogether, instead allowing passengers to buy snack boxes, wraps and sandwiches if they wish to eat anything at all. You can't even get a tiny bag of pretzels or nuts on some carriers.
Grumbling about airline meals is, for most people, a thing of the past. Except for folks on first class, hot meals are almost nonexistent. Anyone who has traveled by air in the last few years knows enough now to pack a bagel, a sandwich, crackers, cookies and fruit because the airlines sure aren't giving you a snack, much less a meal.
Have you boarded a plane lately? All you smell is McDonald's, Cinnabon and Taco Bell as the herd of passengers lumbers in loaded with fast-food takeout to get through the next couple of hours.
Every passenger boarding seems to be clutching an extra-large soda, a venti Frappuccino or B.J.'s-size bag of Doritos. I've seen families cart in entire picnic meals as if they're off to the lake for an afternoon.
The only people buying the snack boxes must be the ones who didn't plan for their own in-flight dining. One wonders whether the airlines would make more money on their snack boxes and prepared meals if they had a good track record of feeding tasty food to passengers. But for decades they haven't. So they continue to be victims of their own longstanding inability to deliver an appealing meal.
There's a segment of travelers, though, who don't give a hoot about scaled-back food service. For them, low ticket prices, convenient routes, good hub connections and on-time performance are more important than a chicken dinner. That makes perfect sense to me. Oh, then there's the not so incidental factor of safety. I'd rather mechanics and pilots get their raises and pensions funded than complain about the lack of hot nuts in first class.
But about those nuts. On a recent American Airlines first-class flight, I noticed that the peanuts in the warm-nut mix had been replaced by soy nuts. I assumed it was because of nut allergies. A friend, however, said it was another cost-saving measure. Whatever, I was thankful to even get the nuts.
As someone who travels first class almost exclusively, I have witnessed the gradual but steady deterioration of domestic first-class food service. It's been a long time since I had a memorable meal or seen anything surprising on the menu. Today's first-class meals are unimpressive and stingy. Even trans-Atlantic first-class pales in comparison to the caviar days of the past.
But at least on a flight to Europe, everyone on the plane - regardless of class - is getting a hot meal. How long will that last? As the major airlines brace for more cuts in their fight to stay alive, I'm clutching to my tiny bowl of nuts, grateful that even some niceties exist in airline travel.
The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.