Is United Cutting First Class Meal Service On Some Flights Or Not? My Head Hurts….

Before we dig in too deeply here, let’s lay down a bit of foundation for this discussion.  I rarely rely on airlines to feed me.  You shouldn’t, either.  Unless you’re on a flight of 5 or more hours, you’re much better off picking your meal in the terminal before you board.

When I started writing this post, I thought I knew exactly where I wanted to take it.  After all, View From The Wing had spelled things out pretty succinctly, even for a confusing situation.  United appeared to be trimming meal service on flights less than 4 hours long during certain times of the day.  But, the message was a bit strange, changing in the time Gary wrote the initial post:

Yet here’s what’s really strange. I asked United about this Wednesday and the next morning the meals page reverted back to show full meals on flights 3 hours and above — not the four hours it showed Wednesday. United didn’t respond when asked about this, but the website again changed to show no meals outside the 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. dinner window on flights less than 4 hours which is what it reflects now.

So, here’s my beef.  It’s two-fold, and some folks might say it’s petty.  First, this isn’t a hard change to roll out.  If United really decided it wanted to change meal service, it was easy enough to make a straight forward decision and roll it out.

Maybe it has something to do with having different catering standards for United Express flights?  Because, the website looks like this for regional jet flights:

I’m still not quite sure why the size of the airplane should dictate whether first class passengers get a meal or not.  In this example, the regional jets are getting meals on shorter flights.  I guess I could understand if you needed to limit meal service on longer flights due to total available space.  Maybe you need to carry enough extra beverages to serve the entire cabin.  Anyway, if we dig too deeply in here, I’ll have a third beef.

Jambalaya (Not Jambalaya) In First Class On United

Why Is This The Battle United Is Picking?

More seats in the first class cabin are occupied by paying customers today than probably any time in recent memory.  Instead of a bunch of elite members getting free upgrades, customers are paying for the seat they want ahead of time.  They’re spending less money to do so than 5 years ago.  But, that’s not a new trend.

Delta has a bottle of water waiting for you in first class when you board.  And a blanket.  Neither greets you on a United flight.  Most times I ask for a blanket the flight attendant is too busy to track one down.  Don’t bother asking for a bottle of water.  It’s those little touches that make a customer feel just a bit more welcome.

Of course, the counter argument is that United has done the research and customers aren’t finishing their meals.  Either a United employee or someone from the contract caterer is analyzing the wasted food coming off of airplanes.  Ed, you’re a businessman.  Certainly you can understand why companies need to find ways to be competitive, to cut costs?

That argument is such a slippery slope.  If you rewind 20 years, you may have heard the story about American Airlines saving $40,000 by eliminating one olive from every salad they served.  Trimming a few ounces from a first class entrée won’t hurt the customer and saves money.  At least, that’s the argument I gather United is making with these decisions.  To my knowledge, American and Delta have not made changes here.  That’s my personal experience and their websites seem to reflect that.  So, United is blazing a path to smaller pork chops.  And chicken breasts.

Philosophy Matters

The businesses I’m responsible for have a philosophy.  We run people-first businesses.  We ask our employees how they’re doing.  And, we try to listen and adjust their compensation, responsibilities and benefits to match that feedback.  Whenever we make a decision, we go back to that root philosophy to make sure it matches the decision.

Now, I’m not some ideologue that thinks everyone should run a business that way.  Think about these two scenarios.  A United flight attendant instructed a customer to put their dog in an overhead bin.  The dog died.  United was quick to say they were responsible, at the same time mumbling something about the flight attendant not really knowing the customer had a dog.

Starbucks had an issue in one of its stores that seemed to revolve around racial bias.  As part of their response to that incident, they closed all their stores for racial-bias education.  That came at a significant cost in lost sales opportunity to the company.  But, they felt it was the right decision.

United sent a dog to Tokyo and then had to charter a private plane to get it back to its owners. Then, they diverted another flight when they loaded the dog on the wrong plane.  Finally, days later, they suspended their pet program to look at ways to improve.

The Final Two Pennies

I’m thankful United finally suspended their pet program to work on the shortcomings.  And, even though I’m a big fan of pets, the suspension of the program isn’t the point.  In some ways, the size of the entrée in first class isn’t the point, either.  Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United recently decided not to accept a large financial bonus he had earned.  I applaud him for doing so.  And, I hope it’s more than a statement.  I hope it’s the beginning of a philosophy.

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