Which airlines serve in-flight Thanksgiving meals?

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For millions of Americans, Thanksgiving is an important time of year. This is evident in the travel spike experienced by multiple US-based airlines throughout the holiday period. In 2020, nearly 3 million people passed through US airports during the Thanksgiving weekend. According to the Transport Security Administration (TSA), this is double the average figure seen across a standard weekend. 

Pre-pandemic, an average weekend saw double the figures recorded in 2020 and, in 2019, this number was twice as high during the Thanksgiving period. This indicates that during the holiday, the number of people taking to the skies increases twofold. 

Such an influx of travelers is bound to cause numerous issues, including delays, cancelled flights and people spending Thanksgiving either at the airport or onboard an aircraft. In addition, the pandemic has resulted in understaffing problems and various other issues, which have had adverse effects on airlines, and caused numerous delays. In light of this, many people will not have the chance to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at home. 

So, perhaps travelers can opt to celebrate the occasion with a traditional dinner in the air? After all, most airlines offer a wide selection of in-flight dishes. Surely most carriers cater to those who find themselves dining solo during the holiday? 

The problem

Well, not exactly. As it turns out, none of the American carriers offer a Thanksgiving option in their selection of in-flight meals. 

First, there are the low-cost airlines that do not offer anything more substantial than a small selection of snacks. In response to an inquiry made by AeroTime, the largest of these carriers, JetBlue (JBLU) and Southwest, revealed that they do not plan to include an option to have a roasted turkey dinner alongside a pack of pretzels, and their reasoning is understandable. 

However, regular carriers that offer in-flight meals do not plan to adapt their menu for the occasion either. AeroTime contacted half a dozen of the largest carriers for comment, including the Big Three: American Airlines (A1G) (AAL), United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. However, none of the carriers announced an intention to include Thanksgiving dinner. 

A spokesperson for Hawaiian Airlines also stated: “We do not alter our in-flight menus for the holidays.”

This stance is not unusual. There are no records of any US-based airline ever offering a Thanksgiving dinner to customers. Perhaps it is simply a silly idea, which has never been done before? 

An unexpected solution

While US-based airlines have not included Thanksgiving dinner as an in-flight meal option, other airlines across the globe appear to have embraced the idea.

During our investigation, AeroTime found several airlines that had previously offered a festive menu for the holiday season.

One such carrier is Qatar Airways, which, from at least 2016, began to offer Thanksgiving dinner during flights between its hub in Doha Hamad International Airport (DOH) and various destinations in the US. 

Before the pandemic, the flag carrier of Qatar flew to 12 US destinations and, for almost half-a-decade now, roast turkey has been offered for Thanksgiving dinner. In 2020, the number of destinations was reduced to 10. But the offer remained. 

However, Qatar does not advertise this option in advance. Instead, the carrier chooses to surprise its customers each year. That is, those customers who have not already noticed the offer during previous years.

In 2017, Emirates, the flag carrier of UAE, joined Qatar in offering roast turkey on board its flights. Since then, the option has remained a part of the airline’s holiday menu, and was supplemented by various Thanksgiving-themed desserts and drinks. 

Emirates serves a greater number of destinations than Qatar. So, the airline can be considered a more attractive option for those who want to celebrate Thanksgiving at 43,000 feet.

But who started this tradition?

It seems that Etihad Airways, the third member of the ‘Big Three’ of the Middle East, was the first to include Thanksgiving-themed fare on its menu. Reports of Etihad offering roast turkey to its First-Class passengers date back to 2012. However, the tradition may be even older.  

For reasons unknown, the airline does not advertise its holiday menu. However, just in case you like Etihad’s turkey dinner so much that you want to try making it at home, the airline does provide recipes for its Thanksgiving in-flight meals on its website. Etihad is famous for comparing its in-flight meal service to a five-star Michelin restaurant in the sky (and hiring actual chefs from such restaurants), so giving them a go would certainly be worthwhile.

After Etihad, both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic seem to have offered a turkey meal option on and around Thanksgiving, but the idea did not stick and, at some point, it was dropped.

So, flying with Emirates, Etihad and Qatar seems to be the only way to celebrate Thanksgiving with an in-flight turkey dinner.

Alternatively, if traveling to the Middle East and back for this experience alone seems a bit too ambitious, TSA all but encourages passengers to bring their own Thanksgiving meal onboard. 

According to the agency, any meal, if solid enough, and properly wrapped, can be brought into the cabin. This specifically includes turkey. However, sauces, mashed potatoes and gravy are a bit more problematic, as they are considered too liquidised for security’s liking. 

Perhaps instead of offering an entire in-flight Thanksgiving meal, US airlines should start providing a selection of sides that could go with a passenger’s own turkey? Now, that is food for thought

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