The rumors starting creeping out over the weekend, but the news officially broke yesterday. United has decided not to begin charging for meals in coach on transatlantic flights from Washington as previously announced. Of course, the question now is . . . why? United wants you to think it was all in the name of customer feedback, but after speaking with Lufthansa, I tend to think that it was partner pressure.
Officially, United is saying that it was in response to customer demands. An employee communication put it this way:
After hearing from many of our customers and flight attendants that our corporate and elite customers value our hot meal service in United Economy on trans-Atlantic flights, we have decided not to move forward with the test we announced last month of offering customers Buy on Board meal options for those flights.
And to its customers, United’s Graham Atkinson is sending a letter with more of the same. See Upgrade:Travel Better for the full text of that one.
But did this really all come as a result of the customer feedback received over the last couple of weeks? That would be very customer-focused and completely surprising. Did they actually see a change in booking patterns so strong that they backed away? That would surprise me as well. So what else could have happened?
I sent a note over to Martin Riecken, spokesperson for Lufthansa asking if they had any comment. Here is his response:
As you probably know, Lufthansa has a clear commitment to a high level of service in all classes. Complimentary meals and a full array of free drinks in all classes is a main pillar of our service concept. That said, of course we have remained in constant dialogue with United on important decisions like this which would also affect Lufthansa codeshare passengers.
Of course, he didn’t say they had anything to do with this reversal, but he did say that they are in constant contact about issues like these. Remember, Lufthansa and United have a revenue sharing agreement that makes them very tight partners on North Atlantic flying. Anything United does has the distinct possibility of significantly impacting Lufthansa’s revenue. Something tells me that charging for meals crossed the line here.
Is it really possible that United didn’t bother to discuss this with Lufthansa beforehand? If so, I’d think some heads might roll over this. They’re trying to spin this change in a positive light, but it really points to a management team that pulled the trigger on something major before properly vetting it. (No McCain/Palin jokes please.)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they’ve reversed course. I just wish they hadn’t gotten themselves into this mess in the first place.