Can Coffee Save an Airline? We’re About to Find Out!

News & Politics

If hotel coffee is the most disappointing coffee, then the hot brown water they serve on airplanes is the second biggest disappointment in travel. It lacks flavor and richness, and how anyone got “dust” to be an actual taste, I’ll never know. Hotel coffee is gross because it’s old, dry, and cheap, but airline coffee is bad for all of those reasons plus science.

Our tastebuds at 30,000 feet are different than when they are on the ground. Moreover, as atmospheric pressure decreases, water’s boiling point decreases. Lower water temperatures mean less bean extraction or weaker coffee. Fluctuating artificial pressure only confuses the process even more. Yes, I am a huge nerd. Back to the story!

When I learned Alaska Airlines is teaming up with a Portland, Ore., roaster to brew a better cup of joe, I took notice.

Why are Alaska and American Airlines reporting Q3 losses? Next week, Southwest is expected to announce a loss. Yet year over year, airline ticket prices are down 13.4% according to Nerd Wallet’s Travel Inflation Report, and more people are traveling in 2023. So how are people traveling? United and Delta are the two major airlines posting gains. United provides access to more international destinations, and Delta’s customer service is satisfactory enough to draw competitors’ passengers. What’s a smaller brand supposed to do?

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It only makes sense that Alaska Airlines would entice new passengers with better food and beverage service, and a java roast made for high-altitude brewing is just the ticket for self-professed coffee snobs like me. In fact, The Jetsetters Jam Sandwich and a cup of good black coffee make me think I need a reason to fly from Tampa to San Diego in January. Round trip, across the country on non-stop flights for under $300? And a toasted cashew and oat butter croissant with strawberry compote? AND a cup of artisan coffee? Hush up and take my money.

This is the attitude Alaska Airlines executives are banking on: travel-weary adults who just want a reason to get excited about the next business trip. I’ve taken 16 trips so far this year (32 flights), all but two of the journeys on American Airlines because miles are important or something. I would gladly switch my preferred airline over food and beverage quality, especially because my favorite part of the flight is Biscoff cookies and coffee, even if I am perpetually disappointed in the hot brown water.

Coffee has started revolutions and fueled late-night study sessions. Responsible for first dates, business deals, and franchise opportunities, pouring the jitter juice makes the world go ’round. The Pacific Northwest has an indy coffee culture that has seemingly been perfected in Alaska, where tiny coffee huts dot the roadsides and town squares. With Alaska Airlines, coffee may well usher in the next generation of air travel.

Conservatives (myself included) are prone to shake our fists at the sky and demand, “Get a haircut, hippie!” but business has no interest in feelings, just making money. Boomers and Gen Xers, businesses are starting to pivot to younger generations who will be the client base in the future. Research has shown that Gen Z values individuality, access over possession, and authenticity. In other words, companies will move toward higher-quality experiences, socially-conscious messaging, and embracing diversity — buzzwords that not many right-of-center people enjoy.

Rather than paint a faux silver lining on things or dole out platitudes, let’s look at it all from a logical perspective.

Things we have freaked out about before that proved to be nothing:
  • Trains (people legitimately believed the human body would melt traveling at that speed.)
  • Telephones (Cue the “invasion of privacy” alarms.)
  • Televisions (No one will go outside or talk to people with a TV in the house — sorta true, but not really.)
  • Y2K (Every financial network in the world will fail.)
  • Metaverse (People are going to have virtual reality wives, and several of them!)

And all we’re talking about here is a cup of coffee and a hummus and olive plate on an airplane. Yes, yes, I know all about the “slippery slope,” but let’s consider

The times when change was a good thing:
  • Direct deposit (How long did it take us to let go of the paper check? Was it really worth keeping?)
  • Smartphones (Now you can look up conspiracy theories and watch your dog on a doggie daycare livestream.)
  • Backup cameras (Yes, you can drive without one, but there’s an added peace of mind, just in case.)
  • Drive-thru windows (Sure, it’s spelled incorrectly, but how great is it to not get out of your car?)
  • Instant coffee (It’s not quite the same, but it’s a hug-in-a-mug my deployed husband appreciated.)

Alaska Airlines is taking a chance on artisanal coffee, and, as champions of the free market, we should be all too happy to conduct that experiment. Some folks might recall eating stuffed guinea with a gin martini in coach, but for those of us born after 1980, it’s been tiny bags of pretzels or underwhelming $15 turkey sandwiches — the idea of a Morning Protein Platter with Smoked Salmon Dip and a fresh, bold cup of coffee seems heavenly.

All I’m saying is if some hipsters wearing glasses without lenses want to scientifically curate a bean-roasting method that accommodates chemical reactions at abnormally high altitudes, let’s cheer them all the way, even if they do spend more money on mustache wax than anyone can justify. If an airline wants to take a page from history and revitalize the industry with food (just like they did after World War II when no one wanted to fly), we should wait for the results with eager anticipation. While it may be expecting too much for a cup of coffee to change air travel couture from one’s “nice” jammies to respectable attire (namely whole shirts, please and thank you), I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think it might just generate new brand loyalties.

Good luck, Alaska Air. You can bet I’ll book a trip with y’all in 2024, so save me a cup (or three).

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