United Airlines makes big adjustments in onboard food and beverage

Lewis Lazare
Ground staff service a United Airlines airplane at Newark Liberty Airport.
Gary Hershorn | Getty Images

United Airlines — after years of touting enhancements to its onboard food service in both the premium and economy cabins — has suddenly done what looks to be a major about-face.

United late last week quietly introduced what — in corporate parlance — the carrier is calling a "streamlining" of the food service on all flights under four hours. That would appear to include almost every flight United operates domestically, with the exception of transcon service between the two coasts.

Food isn't the only part of the premium cabin experience affected by the changes. Notable adjustments in the onboard beverage offerings are also being rolled out.

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All the changes may fatten United's bottom line and please investors. But the changes also could start to irk high-margin first- and business-class customers and cause defections to competitors on lucrative longer routes.

The reduction in food being offered in many instances in first-class and business-class cabins is not insignificant. Hot breakfasts are being replaced on some routes with only fruit plates and muffins, and more substantial lunches are being switched out for wraps and chocolate slabs.

United flight attendant sources also reacted to the changes in the onboard beverage menu.

Gone is Sprite Zero, which sources said is not a great loss, as it was not very popular.

But tomato juice, also a goner onboard, is another matter, according to flight attendant sources. The removal of tomato juice — replaced with an extra can of Mr. And Mrs. T Bloody Mary mix — has caused a ruckus among flight attendants.

Noted one source: "We are once again in full apology mode now onboard our flights, although the issue (of the disappearing tomato juice) is a more minor one compared to the forced removal of customers or suffocating dogs."

On the liquor and spirits front, Jim Beam won't be offered. Nor will Courvoisier or Amaretto.

One flight attendant noted at least one positive development — the addition of Ghirardelli-branded ice cream toppings on transcon United flights. But even that has a downside, as the quality toppings serve primarily to mask the poor flavor profile of the lower-quality ice cream that was first used by Continental Airlines on flights prior to the merger with United.

High-margin customers who will be most affected by these changes no doubt will not hesitate to voice concerns to management about the changes.

United today indicated the carrier will be carefully monitoring feedback.

Noted a United spokesman: "With all of our food offerings, we monitor customer feedback and what they would prefer and adjust accordingly."

United Airlines is a unit of United Continental Holdings.

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