When Oscar Munoz took over the helm of United Airlines in 2015, few on Wall Street believed his multiyear expansion strategy would fly. But its clear to see that his focus on customers, cost, capacity and connections has paid off: In its latest quarter the air carrier's net income jumped nearly 23%, up 3.4% from a year ago, to more than $1.02 billion. United also raised its earnings outlook on the year in a surge in bookings.
At United Airlines' Flight Plan 2020 event in Chicago on Friday, the carrier is announcing its latest bold moves to keep its growth strategy on course. Some of what's to come: larger airplanes, especially for domestic routes; an additional 63 new planes; more passenger-convenience features, such as an improved version of the United App; upgraded technology to react faster to operational disruptions; a number of ultra-long-haul route expansions and outfitting 50% of its widebody aircraft with its luxurious Polaris business-class seats.
To further prove its new image as a carrier committed to its customers, the airline is overhauling another major aspect of its service — its in-flight dining experience. To keep up with evolving food trends, United is offering meal selections designed to meet the demands of consumers whose preferences are shifting toward a diet that's healthier and made with higher-quality ingredients.
Although the airline started introducing healthier options this year, with gluten-free alternatives, the carrier is now focusing heavily on plant-based options, said United Airlines' Executive Chef Gerry Gulli. Among United's 2020 offerings: red beet hummus with roasted vegetables; roasted curry cauliflower with whipped hummus and pomegranate; and vegan stuffed grape leaf with dolma infused yogurt.
United is not alone. Turkish Airlines, Air New Zealand, Emirates and Aegean also offer plant-based options. In July 2018 Air New Zealand collaborated with Silicon Valley food tech start-up Impossible Foods, becoming the first airline to serve the plant-based Impossible Burger as part of its Business Premier menu on flights from Los Angeles to Auckland. Emirates claims it has more than 170 plant-based recipes in its kitchen to cater to its vegan customers, and vegan meals rank as the third most commonly requested special meal in economy class.
But, said Munoz at CNBC's Evolve event in Chicago in September, "we are the only airline in the U.S. that has our own kitchens, because we like to control our quality as much as possible, and we are constantly trying to improve." United has five main kitchens, in Denver, Houston, Cleveland, Honolulu and Newark, New Jersey. Their test kitchen is in Chicago.
CNBC Evolve will return, this time to Los Angeles, on Nov. 19. Visit cnbcevents.com/evolve to register.
Gulli and Gerry McLoughlin, United's executive chef and senior manager of food and beverage design, will both mark their 35th anniversary with the company next year. Gulli joined United after working as an apprentice at Chicago's Ritz-Carlton, Drake and Palmer House hotels. McLoughlin completed a five-year apprenticeship at The Shelbourne, a historic hotel in Dublin, then worked at various establishments, including Chicago's Drake hotel and The Metropolitan Club.
The scope of their role is enormous: The chefs oversee the distribution of 55 million meals a year and manage more than 2,500 catering employees, along with an additional 6,000 within their catering partners all over the world.
When they came onboard in 1985, meals were frozen, prepackaged entrees, heated on the ground and kept hot in thermal containers until serving time or taken aboard chilled or frozen and reheated in a convection or microwave oven at 35,000 feet. A typical entree consisted of a chicken thigh in tomato sauce with yellow rice and green beans; iceberg lettuce and cucumber salad with a thick, sweet dressing; and a slice of cake. "Thirty years ago our produce suppliers were very limited," said Gulli. Now, he said, they are able to get produce in every overseas market from local suppliers.
Improvements in United's kitchens also come in the form of technology. "You eventually are going to see an ordering system where you will be able to secure the options that are available on your [upcoming] flight so you get your choice and we get to figure out the inventory better," said Munoz.
Gulli explained that advances in technology within the kitchen has also eased the process. "Our aircraft ovens today allow us to have more flexibility in reheating the food with steam. In years past, food was only cooked in high-speed convection ovens," said Gulli, explaining that airline catering also has the added challenge of ensuring the food is packed correctly. "The logistics and complexity of getting the food onto the plane and realizing the parameters of the different types of aircraft is complex," said the chef. In 1985 the air carrier flew only domestic; its longest flight was to Hawaii. Now United's fleet consists of at least nine different aircraft and flies to 192 countries.
"Back then I didn't think the meal service would ever be where it is now. Travelers wanted to get from point A to point B. Now cable TV and the Food Network has put excitement into food and made it fun. A lot of our customers are very food savvy," said Gulli.
Today Gulli said he and McLoughlin work closely with corporate and celebrity chefs to continuously evaluate evolving food trends. "We also listen to what our flight attendants tell us," he says, adding that the duo will even sometimes be seen hopping aboard a United flight to interact with customers and solicit feedback.
In 2015 United partnered with the Trotter Project, a nonprofit organization committed to continuing the legacy of legendary chef Charlie Trotter through mentoring and internship programs for youth interested in the culinary arts. For the past four years the Trotter Project has been gathering teams of chefs worldwide to join with United's culinary team in an ongoing collaboration to design new premium-cabin and United Economy meals. In turn, United supports the mission of The Trotter Project through sponsorship and mentorship programs, helping to develop the next great generation of chefs.
The chefs believe their recipes are so delicious, they released "The Polaris Cookbook" this year. It has more than 40 recipes, based on United's in-air dining menu. A portion of the proceeds from sales of the Polaris Cookbook go to The Trotter Project.
There are still headwinds facing United, including the unexpected grounding of its Boeing 737 Max fleet. But Munoz believes that at the end of the day, he will continue to build loyalty by offering great service and listening to customers about what they want.
"People want to be more comfortable, and they want to feel better about the flights, and so amenities — anything that makes it easier for them to travel — is an issue. That's part of flying 160 million people. We have 160 million opinions on most of that stuff, so we're listening and listening and listening," Munoz said.