Report From the Frontlines: United’s New Meal Service, and Why Other Airlines Will Put Money Into Improving Your Experience Too.

Reader Sam L. flew San Francisco – Newark yesterday on United and provides feedback on the brand new improved United meal service.

3 choices on a long-ish haul, up from 2.

Had the mac and cheese and, while certainly calorific, it was excellent. Probably the best airplane food I’ve had in awhile.

Ice cream was served (no toppings) but the flight attendant said going forward it should be some sort of fruit gelato outside of [premium New York JFK – San Francisco/Los Angeles] routes. Sort of a shame because I liked the sundae service.

There is also a new cookie that is baked on board. Sort of flat but it is gooey and tastes excellent. Less bread-like than the old cookie.

The cookie is, apparently, really baked and not just heated on board — a direct frontal assault on American which has moved to heat-on-board cookies because legacy US Airways aircraft have only one oven.

United is the airline that changed to broken cashew pieces to save money, yet’s they’re now investing in inflight product. They’ve even brought back bread plates.

The reason I find this fascinating is because:

  • They believed they could save money eliminating bread plates.
  • They’re still being careful with every dollar, but have decided to reverse themselves and bring back bread plates.
  • This is because they believe they’ll earn more money doing so.

Even though domestic first class is substantially populated with upgrades.

When US Airways began adding wireless internet to their fleet three years ago, it was a real watershed moment.

  1. They knew they weren’t going to cover the installation and operation costs with passenger internet fees.
  2. They realized, though, that not having internet meant they were losing ticket sales to carriers that let business travelers be productive inflight.

It’s not that anyone is going to make their purchase decision on bread plates, or cookies, per se. Just as very few will make decisions explicitly based on amenity kits. But the perception of the quality of product matters. In a death by a thousand cut, any individual cut doesn’t kill you but taken together you’re still dead.

American has had to add back and improve meal services, previously cut to meet the US Airways offerings halfway in the middle. Delta is offering a more substantial product. Even Alaska Airlines is as well.

What’s more, airlines are monetizing their premium domestic cabin. And if they want repeat business the product can’t merely be what Spirit Air markets as ‘the big front seat’.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I was on a p.s. flight JFK-SFO with a noon departure on 2/1. Menu choices were still the old food (ribs, chicken tamale, ravioli) but they did update the sundae service, removing all the topping choices except for chocolate and whipped cream (the latter which they forgot to deliver).

  2. Oy! enough with the cookies! no matter how many bullet points or italics you use to emphasize/analyze, it is still just a cookie..

  3. Apparently hasn’t been implemented systemwide, CUN-IAH flight that was scheduled for dinner in F today catered nothing at all. Passengers basically told too bad.

  4. Too bad they can’t roast the cashews. A couple of watering holes from my younger days offer ’em, along with hard boiled eggs and dill pickles.

  5. @Michael – PS will be updated later this year according to FT.

    American went too far with its cuts. And when Parker and company get through ‘monetizing’ premium coach seats and first class, there will be pain for the AA fanboys.

  6. United’s new baked on board chocolate chip cookie in Global First is yummy! It makes American’s cookies taste like a store bought Keebler cookie. It’s worth switching your allegiance to United just for these new cookies! YUM!

  7. On DEN-BOS right now; lots of confusion over the new menu but smells good so far. Three options: chicken pot pie with biscuit top and beans and rice, enchilada, or a salmon salad with lemongrass dressing of which there are only four and is generating great concern already by row 2…

  8. The chicken pot pie was decent, not exceptional. It was served with a quinoa salad that tasted like lemon-scented cleanser and neither I nor my neighbor ate it. The salmon salad looked nice.

    No table linen. I don’t know if this was a change, a service error, or a lunch thing.

    As rumored, there was a bread plate. It had a multigrain breadstick that didn’t really fit the plate, but it was soft and moist so that was nice.

    The ice cream sundae was replaced with mango sorbet. It was a very nice sorbet with a good texture, but I personally prefer the ice cream sundae. (Or is this new? I can’t recall if DEN-BOS lunch normally has a sundae.)

    I think they may have cut back on the flatware; I was given one each of fork, knife and spoon which is totally sufficient. I vaguely recall getting multiple of each before, but that may have been international only?

  9. I much prefer the new sorbet option! I like the ice cream sundae but always feel awful after because of overeating.
    (I prefer the strawberry topping so it would be sad if they got rid of that one)

    I had some excellent food on United recently in domestic first and international business. I think they are surpassing Delta (I recently had a salad on Delta with some rotten avocado), or at least on par, and both of them are far ahead of AA at the moment… However UA clubs at the moment are still substantially worse in terms of food than DL and AA clubs.

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