United’s Meal Charges Earn the Cranky Jackass Award

United really is a sad, confused airline, isn’t it? For an airline that just two days ago stated that it had put together several “initiatives . . . to improve the guest experience,” yesterday’s announcement seems completely out of place. 06_09_12 jackassBut knowing United’s history of schizophrenia, I suppose this shouldn’t surprise us at all. This airline is a mess, and this latest move is certainly worthy of a Cranky Jackass award.

So what did they do? Well remember that post I wrote about United surveying people about their willingness to pay for meals internationally? It’s coming to fruition. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Instead of explaining it all here, I’ll just quote an internal memo with the cringe-worthy title of “Catering Changes Provide Value and Options.” Ugh.

Effective Sept. 2

North America United Economy® (UE) -All Markets

  • Expanding a la carte snacks for purchase to flights between 760 -1149 miles (approximately 2-3 hours in duration) as a result of successful testing in select markets. Along with the expansion, we’re removing complimentary biscoff and pretzels as data from those tests confirmed that the a
    la carte offering appeals to our customers and they are willing to pay for snacks of higher value.
  • Continuing test of a fresh Buy on Board offering along with the current snack box on flights between 1440 – 2099 miles (approximately 3.5 – 5 hours in duration). Testing limited to ORD-LAX-ORD and DEN-IAD-DEN.

That’s right. No more snacks onboard medium-range flights. But believe me, this is nothing compared the rest of the things here. In fact, this one didn’t even make me blink.

Effective Oct. 1

Increasing Buy on Board Prices

  • Shelf-stable items increase from $5 to $6.
  • Fresh items increase from $7 to $9.

That’s one way to raise cash. Just raise your prices. These aren’t exactly competitive (Delta will still give you a turkey sandwich for $7), but nobody is going to compare meal prices when they choose their airline. They really are trying to ease us into the worst stuff, aren’t they? Let’s move on.

Offering Two-Class Service on North America Three-Class Airplanes

  • United First® service remains the same.
  • A combined BOB service will be offered in United Business® (UB) and United Economy® (UE).
  • Customers in UB will receive complimentary beverages and BOB offering.
  • Staffing will be adjusted to FAA minimums.

Ok, this is insane. On some flights between hubs, United offers service on its internationally-configured aircraft. That means that instead of the usual mediocre domestic first class seat, you get a nice international product in first and business. Now, they’re giving up on business class on those aircraft by making the seat the only differentiator between coach and business. Oh and you’ll get the food and drink for free in business, but it’s the same stuff you can buy in the back of the bus. Staffing will be reduced to FAA minimums meaning that you’ll have about the same level of service as you get in coach (down 1 or 2 flight attendants on each flight).

I understand that this will save the airline a minuscule $2 million a year. That is a drop in the bucket in terms of the bottom line, but it’ll certainly anger people who end up in that “premium” cabin on domestic flights. If they really wanted to simplify things, they should sell the business seats as coach and upgrade their best fliers. It could be sort of an Economy Plus Plus. At least then they’d be underpromising and overdelivering, but no. They’re being greedy here and it’s going to backfire.

Buy on Board Offered Out of IAD to Europe (except KWI)

  • Replacing complimentary meals in UE with BOB fresh and snack box offerings.

Had I seen this one from US Airways, I wouldn’t have even blinked. It’s consistent with what they’re trying to be. I know that United sent out surveys asking about people’s thoughts on this, but I guarantee you that they’ve tossed out the undoubtedly negative results of that survey and decided to go with this anyway. It’s just incredible to me. And yes, I’ve confirmed with United spokesperson Robin Urbanski that elites are not exempt. They will have to buy meals just like everyone else if they’re in coach.

Eliminate Second Service in p.s. Market

  • Removing the pre-arrival snack service and replacing with a beverage service in response to flight attendant and customer feedback.

Now when you fly p.s. between LA or San Francisco and New York/JFK in business and first, you’ll get your first meal but you won’t get a second service. (Meals in the small Economy Plus section were eliminated awhile ago.) I’d like to see the customer feedback that says that people don’t want a snack; they’d rather just have a beverage. Please. Don’t try and hide behind that one as your rationale.

United Public Service Announcement

So there you have it. The death by a thousand cuts strategy continues. Like I said, if I saw this from US Airways, I wouldn’t blink. (They’ll probably match.) But this is United. This is the airline that just released those ridiculous animated commercials that tried to set the mood for a premium, luxurious experience when you fly. That is NOT the airline that is actually being presented to the flying public. This is an airline that appears to have early stage dementia and can’t quite remember what it’s supposed to be doing half the time. Somewhere an Indian is crying. (He’ll probably tell you through his thick Indian accent that his name is Bob Smith and he works in a United reservations center, but that’s not important right now.)

If you want to make it clear to United that you want a better, more consistent experience that actually lives up to (or, *gasp* exceeds) your expectations, you need to switch your spending and actually fly on an airline (like the soon-to-be Star Alliance member Continental) that can deliver. So far, United has proven that it can’t do it, over and over again. Just remember, words won’t change a thing here. Shifting your business elsewhere will.

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