The stupidity of transatlantic red-eye meals

Sometimes companies do nonsensical things that just make you wonder what series of decisions and traditions could possibly justify their behavior. For some reasons, those things seem to happen most often in the travel and health care industries.

Today, let’s talk about transatlantic red-eye flights from North America to Europe. I’ve probably taken 30 of those in my life.

A typical flight leaves Toronto, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Atlanta at, say, 9pm Eastern Time, and arrives in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, Frankfurt, or some other European city at around 8am GMT (London) or 9am CET (cities on the continent). Such flights are six hours or so of flying and a time change of five or six hours.

Because these flights go all night, they are “red-eye” flights, on which you’re trying to get some sleep in a cramped coach airplane seat (or, if you’re lucky or rich, a nice lie-flat business or first-class seat). Red-eyes are far more common than day flights going from America to Europe, because the airlines then fly those same planes back across the Atlantic during the day.

Rant begins here

There are two basic philosophies for dealing with the overnight flight and time change to reduce jet lag.

Philosophy 1 says “Get as much sleep as possible.” If you adhere to this philosophy, you’d want lights out on the flight as soon as possible, without any interruptions.

Philosophy 2 says “Do everything possible to get your brain on the new time zone.” A 9pm flight is leaving at 2am London time or 3am Paris time. If you adhere to this philosophy, you’d also want lights out on the flight as soon as possible, since at 2am or 3am you would normally be sleeping.

So what do the airlines do? They get airborne and about half an hour later, serve you dinner!

Who eats dinner at 9:30pm or 10pm while traveling?

Who eats dinner at 2:30am or 3:30am when adjusting to the new time zone?

These flights do not fly during dinnertime, regardless of which time zone you’re using to calculate dinnertime.

Nearly all the passengers on these flights will take and eat the dinner, because it’s “free” (after you’ve paid a lot for a ticket, that is). That free, fatty, salty dinner is not going to help you sleep. All those flight attendants rolling up and down the aisles offering the dinners, and then later collecting all the empty, messy dinner dishes aren’t helping anybody get any rest.

Given the choice between two airlines flying the same route from North America to Europe, I’ll pick the one that doesn’t serve dinner.

Why are the airlines wasting their time and effort on interfering with passengers’ ability to sleep?

It’s stupid for us. It’s stupid for them. So why does every airline that flies across the Atlantic do this?

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  1. Great timing, Josh. I’ll be forwarding this post to my daughter-in-law, who is flying from Boston to London tonight. Maybe it’ll convince her to skip a “free, fatty, salty dinner” and just try to sleep.


  2. I think they do it for passengers on connecting flights who might be on a whole different timezone. But even if that’s the case, that must be a small subset of most passengers!