No Free Food on Airlines, But Still Calories

PHOTO: Airplane food has gotten less extravagant over the years.
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Once upon a time, dear readers, you could board a U.S. airline, sit in coach and eat like a king. For free.

Imagine chowing down on lobster cocktail or shrimp salad (United) or perhaps braised beef Marchand de Vin followed by banana sour cream cake (TWA). It wasn't that long ago, either; the TWA menu is circa 1974 (it also offered a bottle of beer for just fifty cents). On a four hour flight today, you're lucky to get a gratis bag of Styrofoam peanuts. At least that's what they taste like.

The good news is that we won't get fat! And Mayor Bloomberg won't get distracted from Sandy clean-up duties by issuing "Big Gulp" type soda edicts against the airlines.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at FareCompare.com

First, a "fat" update.

Last week, a federal judge dismissed a suit filed by Kennlie Tiggeman against Southwest Airlines; she claimed a gate agent told her last May she was "too fat to fly" and needed to buy two seats (the suit was tossed because Tiggeman missed a legal deadline in the proceedings). This isn't the first time Southwest has been involved in an obesity incident, nor was it the most controversial: filmmaker Kevin Smith was already in his seat in 2010 when the airline told him to take a hike.

Funny how we only started hearing about "passenger of size" incidents after the airlines stopped serving free meals, which started after 9/11. Continental dished out its last free coach entree in 2010 (about the same time Continental disappeared as it merged into United).

Meanwhile, airlines continued singling out passengers for being too fat to fly, but you can blame a lot of things like cramming more and smaller seats into planes to give carriers a bigger bang for their buck (especially as the price of oil soared).

Some airlines still serve a few free snacks. Do they contribute to excess poundage? Not really.

Think of Southwest with its Nabisco noshes, pretzels and peanuts. Now, peanuts may seem like an odd choice for an airline so concerned about your waistline, but the small packets only contain about 70 calories or so.

Delta's popular Biscoff cookies aren't bad either: about 75 calories apiece and you can always hold onto the second one for later (right). JetBlue, one of the more generous snack dispensers, is also a little more daring fat-wise, offering Fritos and Terra Blues potato chips. Dieters know potato chips come straight from Satan's workshop, but the tiny one-ounce package JetBlue serves is a not-too-terrible 130 calories.

And to be fair, JetBlue does offer a "healthy" snack complete with a feel-good name. Its Shape-Up boxes of raisins and hummus and olives no doubt make the airline feel good too, since they'll ding you for $5.99 per box. Virgin America also offers "Travel Light" selections complete with nutritional information (its Roasted Pear and Arugula Salad is a fairly benign 360 calories) but again, you will pay for these.

But here's where Mayor Bloomberg may get a little concerned: airline soft drinks are still free. Is this airline policy to blame for full-figured flyers? I doubt it, since you generally only get half a can's worth. One flight attendant has gone on record saying the fizz in some sodas takes so long to subside that she usually ends up handing over the entire can, but that's still only 140 calories of Coke. The legendary cousin of Big Gulp -- the Double Gulp -- can hold as many as 600 calories!

But don't take away our free soda. US Airways learned that the hard way when it briefly made us pay for all drinks back in 2008. The airline soon cried uncle in the face of passenger backlash (and when no other airline joined in as they'd expected).

The moral is that when it comes to food, don't blame the airlines; they don't give us enough to make much of a difference, not in coach anyway. If you want to see great examples of "bad" plane munchies, just stop in any airport gift shop for a vast array of high-calorie, high-fat offerings from super-size candy bars to hefty sacks of sweet and salty mash-ups.

As I always say, bring something tasty and healthy from home. And to stay on Mayor Bloomberg's good side, you may want to skip the leftover Halloween candy.

This piece is the opinion of the author and not of ABC News.

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