United Air flirts with fast casual, makes changes to lounges

United Airlines Club lounge menu.
Source: Harriet Baskas, CNBC
United Airlines Club lounge menu.

United Airlines is jumping on the fast-casual bandwagon.

As part of a multipronged program, United recently rolled out a new menu of healthier complimentary food for United Clubs at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The upgrade is part of a broader expansion that will take place later this year at other travel hubs to improve the experience for members, who either pay annual fees starting at $500 or purchase a $50 day pass.

At a time when airlines have been faulted for pulling back on their menu offerings for passengers, United appears to be upping the ante. Pre-packaged, often heavily-salted foods, have been replaced with fresher options that will be change on a seasonal basis.

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The menu, which would be at home among the growing crop of fast-casual dining establishments like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Noodles & Co., include staples such as Greek yogurt and hot oatmeal stations with mix-ins, and cage-free, hard-boiled eggs. For the less health-conscious, scones and bagel sticks will be offered in the morning. Rounding out the afternoon menu are items such as hummus, soup, trail mix, salami and cheese.

The new menu is part of what Jimmy Samartzis, United's vice president of customer experience, described as offering "a healthy snack or a full meal, with lots of options."

It's also something customers have been requesting, he added. The new menu will be rolled out in United Club lounges in Houston, Denver, Newark, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington Dulles by the end of the summer. By 2015, all 49 United Clubs will offer the healthier menu.

The 'next natural step' in traveling

United isn't stopping with the food. The airline also plans to expand its menu of complimentary lounge beverages, which include juices, soft drinks, and select liquors. There also will be a beverage-for-sale program, offering premium wines, beers and spirits. In addition, the Chicago-based airline plans to test a food-for-sale program.

A part of the upgrade program, United is also renovating many of its lounges, including those in Chicago O'Hare, Washington Reagan, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Tokyo Narita. The goal is to improve seating and amenities—including lots more power plugs. Each club entrance will sport a signature scent.

In addition, United Club agents will be retrained as part of a rebooted customer service effort as part of what United's Samartzis calls a "transformational" year for the airline.

Not all the upgrades are reserved for those with access to the club lounges. United plans to introduce some of the changes to gate areas in Chicago and other airports.

"It's about pulling the entire travel experience together," said United spokeswoman Jennifer Dohm. "In addition to new cabin designs and better in-flight food and entertainment options, we're rethinking and fine-tuning everything from baggage check-in to gate designs at the airport. Putting money behind the United Club experience is a natural next step."

—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.