A Three Hour Introduction To How United Serves a Long Haul Premium Cabin Meal

Yesterday I gave an overview of my day going through International Service Training for flight attendants at United. Today, I’m going into much greater detail about everything that goes into the main meal in the premium cabin on a long haul international flight. Even if you’ve had one of these meals, you probably haven’t thought about every little thing that goes into making it happen.

[Full disclosure: United provided my roundtrip flights from Austin to Houston]

It wasn’t yet noon when the time came to start the meal service, but I was already getting hungry. We had covered handing out menus and taking orders already, so the idea of eating had been put into motion early. The trainees were excited, because the best way to learn a meal service was to actually serve one…and eat one. These future flight attendants would take turns over the next 3 hours serving while everyone else got to eat. The main course and salad weren’t the same food served on the aircraft — they use an outside caterer for that — but the rest was the same.

Our service was going to resemble that on a 2-cabin aircraft in BusinessFirst. Apparently, the service in Business on a 2-cabin aircraft is better than on a 3-cabin aircraft even though it’s technically the same class of service. On a 3-cabin aircraft, the appetizer and salad are pre-plated and served together from a regular cart. The same goes for the cheese toward the end of the meal. United said that was done because there were more seats in each zone on a 3-cabin aircraft so they wanted to speed things up, but that doesn’t make sense. A 2-cabin 767-400 has 39 seats in one zone. A 3-cabin 767-300 has 26.

My guess is that it’s more about trying to differentiate the BusinessFirst service on a 3-cabin airplane from the GlobalFirst service. The difference is almost nil, and that’s yet another reason why United is starting to pull GlobalFirst off more aircraft. Between 2-cabin BusinessFirst and GlobalFirst, the only noticeable difference is the color of the linens (blue vs white). Oh, and GlobalFirst has a soup course.

Serving Jacket

Before we could start eating anything, there was a lot of prep work to be done. We all had to don our serving jackets to prepare for the service, and then the beverage cart had to be set up. The trainers handled that.

My first duty was to help prepare and distribute the hot towels. Did you know that the towels are served oshibori style? Yeah, me neither. (Nor did I know what that was.) From a flight attendant perspective, this means the towels are rolled up. Then they squeeze lemon into hot water and pour it over the towels. Lastly they flip them over into a silver serving tray and voila, they’re ready to go.

Serving Hot Towels

On a widebody, there’s one person working each aisle, so together they decide how to handle the the middle section between the aisles. Either each flight attendant handles the seat on his side, split down the middle, or each serves both seats in alternate rows. My serving partner and I opted to split it down the middle. That meant I served the person on the aisle in the center section first. Then I served the person in the window, and lastly I served the person on the aisle next to the window. The last two would flip flop if there’s a woman in the aisle and a man in the window. (Chivalry isn’t dead.)

We were told to address each passenger by name, and that was really somewhat intimidating. I was happy when I was told to sit down, so someone else could take over.

Linens Set

After the hot towels, it was time for the linens. The linens are tri-folded by design. The best practice, according to the trainer, is to drape them over your arm (different arm depending upon the side of the airplane) and then place it in the center of the table. Unfold once, unfold twice, re-center it and you’re done.

Nut Ramekin and Drink

Once the linen was on the table, it was time for drinks and nuts. The ramekin of heated nuts is placed on a serviette. (Uh yeah, apparently that’s what they call those tiny napkins.)

If a passenger wants more nuts, well, too bad. Actually, that’s not true. If there are extra nuts, then flight attendants are told to help. If there aren’t any more, they should check to see if GlobalFirst has any they can steal. If not, then oh well. Time to move on.

Three Tier Serving Cart

Finally, it was time for the real show to begin. Food is served from a three-tiered cart, but these little metal contraptions start out folded up on the aircraft. The flight attendants have to assemble them, and it’s more than just locking the legs and throwing a linen on top.

Three Tier Cart Full

There isn’t much room on these things, so they have to be packed just right. Look at the top tray above. It has silverware, salt and pepper shakers, butter ramekins, water glasses, and bread plates filling every inch. The next tray has the wine strategically placed not to fall over (with labels facing out), the water pitcher, a cloth, and the bread. The bottom tray looks empty with two trays and cloths, but those come in handy.

These carts first made their way down the aisle, and I couldn’t help but think this process was a waste of time. The flight attendant takes one of the trays on the bottom of the three-tier cart and basically sets the place on top of it. Then the tray is turned around and the flight attendant re-sets the place on the passenger’s tray. I have no idea why that extra step is needed.

Place Setting

When it comes to bread plates (and any other plates), I learned you have to “walk your fingers.” The point being: don’t touch the top of the plate with your fingers. Get your hands under it by imitating those old yellow pages ads, and then do it again to get the plate on the passenger’s tray. Once the place is set, we were told to offer the passengers bread, and then ask if they wanted any wine.

Place Setting on Tray

Could we eat yet? Yeah, finally. First, the appetizers were supposed to be served, but we skipped that step. Then it was time for the salad course. The salad comes out on that cart and the dressing (there are a couple choices) was mixed in the aisle.

Salad Course

Along the way, there was a constant effort to clear used plates and silverware. There are serving flight attendants in the aisles, but there’s also the galley flight attendant staying back and working the kitchen. Apparently a good galley flight attendant is always looking to see if the aisle flight attendants need anything during the service.

Once the salad was cleared, it was finally time for the main course. On every flight, there are “chef tips” provided, showing how to prepare the meal. One rule is to never start preparing the main course on the ground because you might run into delays, and then your timing will be thrown off. Once the food is ready, don’t put it on a cold plate. Make sure to warm the plates first so that it helps keep the food warm for longer. Timing seems to be the biggest challenge.

Main Course

As mentioned, our main course wasn’t the same stuff they serve in the air and that’s a good thing. The chicken piccata wasn’t very good. Once we were done, it was time to start cleaning up. While it’s pretty common to see clean-up in coach where the flight attendant walks through with a bag or a cart and some gloves, that is not acceptable in the premium cabin. The flight attendant has to come through with the silver tray and clean up each place setting, just leaving the drinks. Plastic gloves are not allowed.

Cheese Cart

Were we done yet? Heck no. It was cheese time. The cart was re-set with cheese, crackers, and more wine. This time, there was port as well. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to actually drink any of the alcohol during the training session.

Cheese and Crackers

I was completely stuffed by this point, but the most important course came last.

Ice Cream Cart

It was time for ice cream sundaes. Again there was an elaborate effort to build out the cart, and then it was up to each traveler to decide how to build her own sundae. It’s a glorious thing.

Ice Cream Sundae

And with that, our meal service was done. It usually takes between 2 hours and 2 hours 45 minutes to do an entire meal service, though of course ours went longer because it was a training exercise. After completing a service, I can only assume the flight attendants are exhausted, but they’re also starving. Only once that service is done can they eat.

We spent a little time on later services including mid-flight snacks and pre-arrival meals, but those were glossed over for the most part. It’s that first meal which really seemed to matter most. And there’s a lot of work that goes into putting that together.

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