United Tells Employees They’re Cutting Service Levels in Business Class (You Thought It Couldn’t Get Worse)

United made a splash introducing its new business class product two years ago. The seat was improved (direct aisle access) but not close to industry leading. What was unique about the Polaris seat was the ability to squeeze a lot of them into the cabin. But Polaris wasn’t just supposed to be the seat. It’s improved bedding – I’ve argued the best in business class – and a more extensive meal and drink service.

There have been a number of cut backs to the United business class soft product since then. United says the service took too long and passengers want to sleep. That may even be true. But eliminating the bloody mary and mimosa carts, and wine tasting flights (they were way over expected cost on wine), they eliminated the special, indulgent quality of the product.

United’s President Scott Kirby described their approach to product as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and described how he sees the schedule (that they fly) as their product. It’s no surprise that United sees an opportunity to reduce service even further.

  • Starting February 1 business class entrees will be plated in advance in order to reduce flight attendant workload and allow them to reduce flight attendant staffing in the cabin by one position. Those entrees aren’t going to look very appealing when they make it to the customer.

  • Where any of their competitors fly with fewer flight attendants, United will too. The goal, apparently, is to offer the lowest levels of service among peers American and Delta. And that’s not just limited to business class, Boeing 757 international routes lose a flight attendant in coach too.

Oddly, United says it’s consistent with what passengers want (faster meal service) and fewer employees getting to work is good for flight attendants too (because United will make more money, therefore they’ll grow, therefore they’ll hire more flight attendants). At United, less is the new more.

Here’s the message that went out to employees yesterday:

(HT: Rob F.)

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Regardless of where you stand politically, in the past two years Americans are showing to both have and willing to spend more money, is it really wise to try and win a race to the bottom? It seems if more people are willing to spend a little more for quality, wouldn’t An offering closer to Delta’s model be more appealing to United than American’s? If you look at the stock alone that race to the bottom has shown an almost direct correlation between both Delta (up) and American (down)

  2. What else is news, paying more and getting less. It’s amazing how much EVERYTHING in life has changed, not for the best, for the traveller over the past years. Wonder how the industry is looking at the recent debacle with Marriott and SPG…laughable, I’d say…

  3. What’s next on the list of UA’s “efficiency” improvements? Expect cuts to catering and staff in the new Polaris lounges at ORD, EWR, IAH, SFO … It’s just a matter of time.

    Eventually if you remove all the cheese from a pizza, it’s no longer pizza.

  4. I just looked at that. I thought maybe Gene is thinking ATL-FRA-SFO…..except LH doesn’t serve ATL. So then I thought maybe Gene is thinking he doesn’t have a choice…I’m guessing Frontier ain’t Gene’s style.

  5. Guys stop being so mean! It’s hard on senior citizens to constantly be on their feet serving people food and taking their drink orders!

  6. HaHa, their current service levels were bad enough, this is just going to give the FAs more time to stand around. My last biz flight on UA in July was a wreck, hard to believe it’ll get even worse.

  7. I had to do it. My Bonus Review is due before EOY.
    I have to show The BOD’s I can chop chop chop.

    Your turn, Dug.

  8. Service is glacial on LH – much worse than UA. It is not the # of FAs but the pace. Nobody needs the Bloody Mary cart. What they need is fast service so lights can be dimmed and they can sleep on an evening flight.
    What really annoys is the lack of midflight meal options (how hard would it be to cater subway style sandwiches) and elimination of liquor options. I’m paying $6k for the flight and you can’t stock Gran Marinier- really??!!

  9. They are cutting flight attendant staffing on flights too,,,,
    So font think they are very happy either,,,

  10. A 3-way race to the bottom of the barrel. Will the next steps include getting rid of meals? Self-serve flights without flight attendants? Getting rid of business class entirely? Stacking passengers like cordwood? Am breathlessly waiting to see how much more the US- based air carriers can destroy their once-decent service.

  11. reply to comment by Ratanaai:
    Unfortunately all that your post shows me is the level of stupidity and ignorance some “people” will resort to in the name of ‘wit & sarcasm’. To coin my latest best phrase out of America…..”Ass-hat”!

  12. DId they also analyze the number of seats? That’s what should determine staffing. You’d think this “high level” analysis, if it had any merit, would have been done up front.

    Hiring more FAs gives more dues to the union. It does not help individual FAs especially when staffing per flight decreases.

    Corporate bs.

  13. Hmmm yes, let me totally direct my money to mediocre products! Can’t wait to be a big spender on United!

    I understand cutbacks to coach, harder to fathom the first/business reductions. “If you want better service, you’ve got to pay for it!” “Hmm, ok I did but it still sucks, what do I do now, fly private?”

  14. Fewer flight attendants means slower service, ceteris paribus.

    Between making the meal service so slow and terrible, perhaps the next shoe to drop is to cut back further on the meal service. But they are going to be hard pressed to speed up the clean-up unless and until they get rid of the bulk of the meal service.

    The poorly regulated US cartel kingpins’ oligopoly has given customers a race to the bottom. And it shows in this way too.

  15. Oh, the US Airways Management Cancer keeps on spreading, doesn’t it?

    Scott Kirby is nothing but reliable when it comes to his cost cutting. And some of the UA, faithful who got their hopes up when Munoz first pushed the Polaris class, are now seeing bits and pieces of AA misery.

    All things being equal, Scott Kirby will have more cuts coming soon. Get ready.

  16. Sorry sonotfunny, how dare I address the elephant in the room that until we get rid of these bitter, cranky old folks on flight crews, service is going to neither improve or become faster. And United loves the grannies.

  17. Boy, what a biased article. For example, “Where any of their competitors fly with fewer flight attendants, United will too. The goal, apparently, is to offer the lowest levels of service among peers American and Delta“
    So, they are matching Delta and American and that makes their goal to “offer the lowest level of service among their peers”? That makes no sense whatsoever.
    Also, the United communication clearly states that the position they are eliminating isn’t in the cabin as this article states, it’s in the galley. Passengers won’t even notice that they aren’t there.
    The vast majority of complaints about this service is that it takes too long. This will help with that.

  18. I can only presume that Scott Kirby is channeling his George Orwell…UA is becoming the Ministry of Truth, where “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

    I think I’ll stick with Alaska domestically, and book international flights based on where I can transfer my points…

  19. Ratanaai, I couldn’t agree more. While I have to fly the United cattle car to ORD for my Asia connection, I’m in heaven once I step onto an Asian airline business cabin. SoooNotFunny, you can take your political correctness and stuff it. Cant wait to try Vietjet;-)

  20. Mark, you couldn’t be more wrong. You won’t notice a difference because the flight attendant they’re taking away is in the galley???? Who do you think gets all that food and carts ready to go? Sets up and unwraps 25 salads, apps etc? Cooks the food? If the galley position is eliminated then the Isle flight attendant will be doing it!
    AND bringing the food out you. Think that’s going to make the service faster? As someone who’s been working that Galley service for the last 5 Years I’m telling you right now your service will change drastically!

  21. Maybe because they have one of the best route structures in the world, one of the best frequent flier programs, are one of the safest airlines in the world and many other reasons. Maybe that’s why.

  22. Gary does not point out AA preplates biz class meals.

    So does Emirates.

    The bloody mary cart is something no other airline had. It’s not like they went below AA and DL.

    AA is the one that has led the biz class race to the bottom – period.

  23. Mark, you will notice the elimination of the galley FA. You have no idea how much work that position does to make the service run smoothly.

  24. Hey kids,
    The grannies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon…not since united dumped their pensions on the PBGC…they can collect their pensions & continue to work…that’s called double dipping…then at 70 they collect social security while continuing to fly…that’s called triple dipping…$$$

  25. United has an ENORMOUS number of new, young flight attendants. Saying United only has old flight attendants is as ignorant as saying the food is still bad in London.

  26. United was and will remain a great airline! 🙂 Maybe they will use the ‘extra’ flight attendants to help other flights, when an employee is sick or cannot come to work. Lots of times, they have to fly flight attendants from other states not to go short.
    I love United, and the reduction of service ‘attention/quality’ will not stop me from flying with them. They have the best destinations of all!

  27. United Flight Attendant’s are not happy With so many things but afraid to speak out not wanting to lose their jobs. They have complained to upper management and our Voices are not being heard. Simply put our customers and Flight Attendant’s are not happy with it “Core Four “. What is that you may ask look it up. This is turning back to the days of Frank Lorenzo and Jeff Smisek…

  28. We Flight Attendant’s are not happy with this announcement it came as a surprise to us. We have been unhappy with upper management for quite some time now but afraid to speak out because we do not want to lose our jobs. We feel our motto is not being met with our customers as well as employee is simply put “We Are Not Happy With Core Four”. What is that you may ask look it up and you’ll have your answer. It’s like we are backtracking to the days of Frank Lorenzo and Jeff what is that you may ask look it up and you’ll have your answer. It’s like we are backtracking to the days of Frank Lorenzo and Jeff Smisek. We are not happy!

  29. United Airlines flight attendants are not happy!
    “Core Four” what’s that??
    Becoming the days of Frank Lorenzo and Jeff Smisek…

  30. All of the premium cabins at UA on their widebody aircraft all exceed the current offerings at DL and AA.

    The service is already a complete embarrassment and moral is the lowest of low.

    This is what happens when America West’s alumni are hired.

  31. All of the premium cabins at UA on their widebody aircraft all exceed the current offerings at DL and AA.

    The service is already a complete embarrassment and moral is the lowest of low.

    This is what happens when America West’s alumni are hired.

    For those of you with lack of sense. The galley FA’S set everything up for the aisle attendant’s. You will go from 5 Crew, 3 aisle and 2 galley, too 2 aisle and 1 galley.

    The Purser works aisle from the mid-galley. Is the Purser supposed to work both? Nope! They will allocate the Purser to Economy OR have 4 people crammed in a tiny A zone galley only adding on to service length.

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