Could walk-up pantries be the future of in-flight service?

Imagine pouring your own in-flight coffee.
Imagine pouring your own in-flight coffee.
Photo: Stewart Sutton (Getty Images)

Flying, even before the era of COVID-19, has basically been a horrible experience. This is particularly true during meal time in coach, which many airlines have distilled to the human version of a farmer filling a trough with slop to sate a bunch of hungry piggies that will eventually be sent down the bacon chute. But now, thanks to COVID, in-flight service is being suspended entirely, and what is left is...snack bars.

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To be fair, walk-up snack bars on airplanes aren’t exactly new. As pointed out by the blog DMARGE, some airlines, like United and Jet Blue, have been offering designated snack areas, or “pantries, as an amenity for some time. And these are not necessarily a bad thing. Being able to grab a bruised apple, a lukewarm bottle of water that tastes like it was filled from a bathtub, or a minuscule bag of crushed Doritos can definitely help to sand down the jagged edges that long-haul international travel will create in one’s psyche.

The problem is that in-flight pantries have been an amenity, not a necessity, and it’s not entirely clear how eliminating personal in-flight service will actually serve to keep people safer. While it does seem like it would help to limit contact between flight attendants and travelers, which is certainly good for flight attendants, airplanes aren’t exactly known for being roomy, and creating additional congregation spots seems like a bad idea. You know how people cluster around airplane bathrooms in sweaty huddles? Imagine that, except now it’s a guy with Oakleys and an American flag face mask (positioned underneath his nose), thumbing through a wicker basket for ten minutes to find an unbroken Famous Amos cookie.

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As airlines will famously do the absolute bare minimum to keep travelers safe and happy, it is up to us to find (and advocate for) a better solution. My suggestion is that we retain typical in-flight service but equip flight attendants with pneumatic cannons, similar to the ones used to launch T-shirts at baseball games. Alternatively, we might consider the use of those long, trigger-operated can-grabbers, should the cannon thing prove to be infeasible. If you had to solve the problem of in-flight food and beverage service, what would you come up with?

Jacob Dean is a food and travel writer and psychologist based in New York. He likes beer, less traveled airports, and is allergic to grasshoppers (the insect, not the mixed drink.)

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DISCUSSION

The best approach I’ve seen is the one I encountered a few years ago. There was a cooler full of packaged food (sandwiches, since there was nominal meal service on this flight) on the jetway, and as we boarded, we were instructed to choose a package and a bottle of water. Before landing, flight attendants came through with trash bags to collect wrappers and empty bottles. None of this silliness with taking drink orders or asking each person if they wanted the bag of pretzel shards or the bag of cookie crumbs.