United Considers Charging for Meals Internationally, Drinks as Well

Meals, United

Oh me, oh my. Looks like United has been investigating following US Airways into the abyss of ancillary revenue and actually trying to surpass them. They’re floating a survey asking how people feel about paying for drinks in coach as well as food in coach on international flights. This may surprise you, but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing in theory.

Here’s a nice summary picture of what they’re proposing for food sales. I should note that according to this FlyerTalk thread, they’re throwing up different prices for each product on different surveys to test price sensitivity.

United food charges

So, $24 for a freakin’ salad? No way. But that could just be one of their higher test price points. How about $39 for a “restaurant-style” meal? Ok, this is potentially interesting. I’m used to getting a crappy dish of mystery meat for free when flying internationally (they’re now proposing you could pay for that as well), but what if I could get a decent meal as long as I’m willing to pay for it? I like the idea, but there’s one problem.

If I were in a decent restaurant, $39 for a complete meal wouldn’t be outrageous at all, but I guarantee you it won’t taste that good onboard an airplane. Even more importantly, how are they going to prepare all this? You think that with all those flight attendant staffing cutbacks, United is going to be able to serve a restaurant-style meal? No way. You may order a restaurant-style meal, but you’ll end up with a reheated piece of meat that probably doesn’t end up as it should because the flight attendants don’t have the time and it’s not easy to make food taste good up there.

The biggest problem here is that if people are going to pay that much money for food, it creates an expectation, one that’s going to be hard for United to meet. Currently it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad because it’s included for free. I tend to think United will have a very tough time keeping people happy with these unless they can consistently deliver quality. I just don’t have faith that they can execute this well, and that’s going to sink this plan.

Oh, and by the way, while they are looking to charge for sodas, etc, they did make sure to carve out that filtered water would still be free. I wonder if by “filtered” they mean it’s had a chance to make its way through Emirates’ onboard showers?

Remember, this is just a survey right now, but it’s safe to assume that this is being seriously considered right now.

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31 comments on “United Considers Charging for Meals Internationally, Drinks as Well

  1. Last week some of the airline CEOs were on CNBC and complained about how foreign airlines are more popular for international travel than the US carriers, and they wonder why after things like this are released.

    Anyways I was able to sample AF’s international coach meals back in April and I was pleasantly surprised by how good they were.

  2. Maybe the thinking is that if the majority of the respondents reply with prices lower than United is suggesting, they’ll decide not to offer anything. Maybe they weren’t even serious anyway, and just put this out as a bit of fun to divert attention from something more, er, controversial…

  3. “If I were in a decent restaurant, $39 for a complete meal wouldn’t be outrageous”

    In restaurants that price point includes ambiance, service, and an overall restaurant experience. Even the greenest of travelers knows it won’t happen in economy. Also regarding price: consider that many traveling are couples and families sharing the same budget, so in many cases the price points will be multiplied by two or more.

    That $15 sandwich, (which to me looks far more filling than the $39 rubbery steak with it’s scant side of potatoes and “grilled” veggies,) will end up being shy of $50 for three people, x2 for a return is almost $100. For freakin’ airplane food. Base on that I predict that the salad, (agreed insanely priced,) and that “restaurant style meal” will never come to fruition.

    My other thought: Do you think an airline would do a long haul without ANY sort of complimentary food? I’d guess they’d still hand out the snack items at no charge, at least on flights of more than eight hours.

    Being a type 1 (insuline dependent) diabetic my, carry already contains a few powerbars, raisins, and peanuts – as I need to eat every few hours to maintain my blood sugar. I can’t rely on airline’s feeding schedules.

    Just like I won’t go hiking or for a long remote bike ride/drive without something to eat, when I fly I’m always prepared for a seven hour tarmac kidnap or some other worst case scenario.

    I’m personally responsible for myself and would never mandate anyone HAVE to feed me, but I would think out of liability reasons the airlines would offer some sort of minimal sustanence on long hauls don’t you?

    Just a thought, but the liability factor could come into play should an airline deny someone food/drink.

    p.s. why are bottom three pictured items in glass bowls and plates? That, along with that “restaurant quality” sprig of rosemary next to the steak, will never happen either.


  4. james – It wouldn’t surprise me to see aircraft go without any complimentary food, but if someone has a medical situation onboard, you know they’ll break open those pay meals quickly and feed that person.

    Remember, 10 years ago nobody would believe that there wouldn’t be free food in coach, let alone free soda.

  5. I can just see the hostility of the budget minded coach pax as the chap next to him tucks into a sirloin steak. Or the passive aggressive nature of the inside budget pax who needs to use the restroom just as the outside pax gets his “restaurant quality mean.” We are a society with a lot of inequality, but usually the affluent don’t rub it in the face of the less affluent as boldly as eating well sitting in uncomfortable intimacy with the poor guy who can’t afford the high priced airline food.

  6. Well, VX sells a lot of buy-on-board… but they don’t charge for soda. I also think the most expensive item on the menu is around $10 for the wrap or cheese plate.

    Could they really stock and store extra items of what gets served in F or C? THAT I could see charging $30-40 for… but that also means cutlery, china and so on.

  7. While I’m not entirely against the a la carte way of flying I am against the absolute ridiculous prices. It’s blatant soaking of a captive audience. I understand why restaurants in airport terminals are slightly more expensive and would pay a slightly higher price for food at 35,000 ft. But a $24 salad had better feed a family of 4 at that price. And, having experience with foreign carriers coach class food, United had better offer a cheaper fare if they want to charge for food on the same route and still compete.

  8. Cranky, if this is implemented I see lawsuits on the horizon. SFO-HKG is 14 hours. No food for 14 hours..?!@ It’s not even like you can carry on a decent sandwich and expect it to be good 14 hours later.

    I think if UA insists on this, the best model for this is to build-in another $15 or $20 into each ticket, and then give each pax a choice online they can book before for what food option they want. Pax can also upgrade their meal onboard or online beforehand if they wish for addtl $$. Otherwise the 14 hours and no food routine seems like it has “sue my a$$” all over it. I can just see it now, all the angry old flight attendants on those intl Asia routes gleefully telling someone who is ill after no food for 13 hours to shutup and sit down unless they pay. Extortion?

    Europe from IAD, yes. Okay. 7 hours is doable. But the US to Asia or Australia? Ummm now we’re going from “sucky cost-cutting” to “Guantanamo-style”. You could have people physically not well after no food for so long.

  9. Yeah, there is the factor of “Gee, I could fly LH/SQ/SK/AC on Star Alliance internationally, pay the same price, AND get fed.” When I went to Europe this winter, I was able to get an LH direct flight (PDX-FRA) for what I would have paid for a AA one-stop flight (SEA-DFW-FRA and FRA-ORD-SEA) that had an ugly 9 hour layover AND routing me through ORD on the way home (read: high chance of being hosed). So if the non-US carriers can still offer decent flying AND more amenities… I don’t know- maybe you can run international air service like Southwest runs their domestic routes (you get a seat and nothing else)… or maybe you’ll just drive your brand even further into the ground.

  10. Just to follow up on my earlier comment. Imagine an extremely shapely beautiful young woman boarding the plane wearing a see-through dress with no underwear of any kind. Most of the other women will be annoyed over the “crime” of “flaunting.” If the same beautiful woman boards dressed in business attire the other woman are not upset, or if they feel less attractive in view of the comparison, they suppress the feeling. (And this is so even though the guys are taking rapt notice of the hourglass figure revealed by the business attire.) This is the problem of the $39 meal being ordered next to the guy who feels a $2 cup of coffee at Starbucks is an extravagence. If you want to eat gourmet (or allegedly gourmet) food at large expense, more power to you. But to eat it under the nose of a frugal fellow pressed against you because you’re both in a 17 inch wide seat and each of you have 22 inch wide shoulders, well, that just violates rules about flaunting and sooner or later that will translate into more “rage” incidents.

  11. Jonathon I don’t think the first analogy was lost on anyone – but I don’t see this as starting any class wars. To me the sandwich looks far better than the steak, and both will end up melding into the “airplane” food category at 40k feet anyway.

    If anything people like me will feel smug and haughty watching people swipe credit cards for $50-74 (to eat AIRPLANE food,) while I eat cheese, crackers, apples and my own healthy tupperwarable non-liquid/gel items I’ve brought along with me.

    Which brings up a much more critical by-product if this happens: More people bringing food onto planes from airside – thus the nauseating stench of McDonald’s bagged fries and the greasy Steak and Shake oder permeating the cabin.

    God help us if they keep “leftovers” in the seatback for the second half of a long flight.

  12. Many airlines have Buy on Board now and it doesn’t insult me if someone spends money at the food cart. I bring some food and think about how much I’m saving. So it works both ways. I also doubt the airlines can serve a nice gourmet meal to economy passengers, but to Cranky’s point about expectations, if I walk into a restaurant and order a nice steak and trimmings, it’s hard to get through these days for under $50 once taxes and tip are added in. Have you seen the price of good cuts of beef these days? So a $39 steak meal implicitedly includes the cost of service, and there are no taxes to pay. It’s not that hard to rationalize.

    Besides, the point everyone is missing is that this is international travel, and with fuel surcharges and all, the poorest members of the flying community are being culled by the economics. Anyone who can afford to fly to Hong Kong can afford to bring or buy a good meal.

  13. Good points in particular by brother Eponymous. I just wonder who will pay these crazy prices. The food will not be as good as it looks in the survey (note the steak dinner and probably others are only stock images) and won’t taste good. I’d rather have a can of Slim Jims, at least I know how those are going to taste and I don’t feel ripped off. I was offered the $9 salad and thought that was pushing it. The downward spiral will just continue, because, lets face it, even if they’re getting $9 for the salad, they’re still going to take away one sprig of broccoli and one piece of pasta at a time until there’s nothing left. And the price will still be $9….

  14. I prefer what I bring on with me anyway, and I guess there are those at one or more airlines who are contemplating the “insurance risks” or the “health problems” of allowing us to bring on our own food all in a way of making us even more captive. I would guess they are trying to narrow our choices to what they offer as a way of increasing their income. First they introduce exorbitant prices for margin quality food and they they restrict carry on vittles.

  15. I’ve been a legacy carrier flight attendant for ten years.

    Seeing a major airline charge for soda, even just a year ago, is something I thought I’d never see.

    Over at US Airways, now if you want a soda or a cup of coffee, you have to shell out a buck or two–that’s one thing. I don’t like the idea….(I feel that passengers traveling by air already have enough hassle to go through these days…even before they get on the plane)….HOWEVER, at least the prices over at US aren’t an absolute ripoff either.

    A bottle of water on USAir is now being offered for 2 bucks. Meals are 7.
    In the aiport, those items usually sell for about the same.

    But in my travels stateside and overseas, I have NEVER been in an airport (including Europe, even after figuring in the dismal US exchange rate) ..where a chicken sandwich cost $19.00

    And FORTY BUCKS for a steak the size of a HOCKEY PUCK? You have GOT to be kidding me. Say it out loud “FORTY BUCKS” Do you hear how absolutely ludicrous that sounds?

    United’s proposal makes the other airlines that charge for soda and food–sparkle in comparison.

  16. This comes down to the importance of meals on long-haul flights.

    Like you Brett, I live in Los Angeles. I’ve taken the nonstop LAX-LHR route many times on every airline that flies that route (except the recently started Air France service). It’s about 11-12 hours.

    Just like you need two or three movies to keep you entertained, more importantly, you need two or three meals to keep you nourished and non-cranky. While one can get away with buying a stale sandwich at the deli on the way to the airport for a 5 hour transcon flight, there just isn’t a food alternative to the long-hauls. We’re dependent on what the airline gives us. Even if I don’t care for the “main course” (Salisbury steak makes me nauseous), at least we can fill ourselves with the ancillary items like salad, bread and desert and the breakfast items on the morning approach, however crappy the quality of those items are. Having to pay $12-plus dollars for a meal that could be inedible to many people is not only a gross value-for-money offense, but not eating anything for 8 or so hours can be very unhealthy for the passengers in general. I honestly would not pay $12 or more for unhealthy “filler” food.

    As hinted above, after a certain amount of non-eating people become irritable. While I’m sure with my polite high-tolerance disposition, I would behave myself and resist the urge to treat flight attendants and fellow passengers rudely if I feel irritated by them for slight offenses (stepping on my toe that’s a centimeter into the aisle as someone heads to the lavatory for example). But I’m not the millions of people who fly long-haul routes. I think air-rage incidents will increase during the last hours of these flights. The common landing/ground delays will make matters worse.

    Airlines have resisted charging for or omitting meals on international flights for a reason, free meals are necessary for the operation. If United and god knows who else go down this path, it will only lead to problems in exchange for cursory income.

  17. In response to Eponymous Coward’s statement “. . .Southwest runs their domestic routes (you get a seat and nothing else)”. On Southwest, you get a comfortable coach seat, beverage (which US charges for), peanuts/pretzels or a snack of choice (which several others are now charging for), a blanket if desired, a pillow (which JetBlue is now charging for), and reliable consistent service. Much more than a seat and nothing else. I’ll take Southwest anytime – no surprises.

  18. Southwest’s model works great on short hop flights on a 737.

    They don’t run international long haul on twin-aisle 747/777/A340/A380s, where the flights are 12+ hours long.

    THAT’s my point.

  19. How about take and go food at the airport from vendors that don’t sell reheated meaty treats made out of vague congealed substances?

    A restaurant at the gates with $2 sliders, or 3 tamales for 2 bucks, or something like that, quick, portable, and cheap.

    I can live with buying food and drinks on the plane, but, by GOD, lets not go the Ryanair route and eliminate seat pockets and reclining seats and pitch that would be uncomfortable on a slave ship.

    Next flight of over 3 hours for me is just gonna be on tranqulizers for me. If I’m tranqued, I don’t really care about service…

  20. Where to start, where to start. First, a personal opinion. My choice of meal is not dictated by whether or not the guy next to me is offended by my extravagance (or stupidity) in paying the highest price for the highest possible quality. There is no flaunting here, unless the guy buying the steak does a spot-on Eddie Murphy Ice Cream routine. As for anybody traveling on even a professional budget in today’s economy, a $40 meal may be considered an extravagance on the ground, much less on an airplane. Find out what your corporate travel policy says and get ready to potentially be surprised.

    The longest I’ve ever flown in coach was L.A. to Brisbane, fourteen hours. A full meal right after take-off, chicken something was followed by a second equally full meal about seven hours in to the flight, beef something. Then we had a landing meal of a light sandwhich and drinks before hauling in to Brisbane. Top marks again for Qantas. If United wants to charge in the face of that, WITH the new A380 coming down the pike against them, then they may as well discontinue the route.

    The story also illustrates, guys, that the price would be PER meal. For these ultra-long haul flights we’re accustomed to up to THREE meal services. Steak on the first go round, a salad to tide you over while you’re sleeping then a gourmet sandwich to get you through customs and the cab ride to the hotel? Add THAT up per person!

    United must be rationalizing that movie theaters and ball parks don’t allow outside food in to their venues and customers willingly fork over hard earned money for $8 beer, $6 popcorn and the like. Quite literally that thinking just doesn’t fly. To limit what passengers can bring through security (next to nothing), then set-up the food vendors inside security with the best profits of their lives or face 16 hours on an airplane (don’t forget boarding, taxiing and deplaning time) without a meal? I agree with PRC – I see lawsuits on the horizon more than I do the disgruntled seatmate who can’t or won’t shell out for an over priced and under sized salad.

    I like PRC’s idea of pre-ordering and or upgrading the meal online prior to travel. Unfortunately it won’t work. Consider, PRC, how often you have been delayed in your travels. The meal you personally ordered, however, left on the original flight and they did not stock a replacement on the flight you eventually ended up taking, especially if you bought a meal on United but American ended up getting you home. Definitely don’t hold your breath if you missed your meal flight due to weather!

    Final word against the whole idea that you fellow passengers must remember. There is a major reason the portion sizes were never that large to begin with: There is only so much room on board even the largest airplane flying. It is a serious business packing up to 1200 individual meals on to an airplane scheduled for 14 hours in the air. If you’re at the airport early enough, watch how long and count how many hi-lift service trucks it takes to cater a 747 going overseas.

    Your $40 steak won’t get larger, comrades, you’ve simply paid to guarantee that there’s one on the plane for somebody.

    Domestic travel is one thing. I will come back to United for overseas flights only if each of their major competitors and alliance partners has started charging as well.

  21. It would be one thing on the long haul International flights if they charged you say $40.00 period and you still get all the meals in flight you get now for that one price. It would be no different then an all you can eat Sunday buffet brunch at some high end Hotel. But a high cost per meal will not go over well with the public. I know if I had to pay a lot per meal that meal better be prepared the way I like it and serviced in the style it would be on the ground (like that will happen).

    We seem to except something the way it is if it’s free, but as soon as we have to pay, humans get very picky.

  22. LOL…charging for meals in coach on an international flight, what a hoot.

    Boy oh boy, Openskies II is sooo gonna be ratified in 2009.

  23. Just disappointing to see something like this come from an airline that was for decades a proud bird to fly on.

  24. Okay, so we have all lamented or lampooned the idea. I will just carry my food and drink with me. Perhaps that is just better, but I know it will be messier, in many ways. I will fly to Istanbul this October. When I arrive in Detroit from Fort Wayne I will pray to cross the Atlantic in a KLM flight, not a Northwest flight. Why can (or do) the European carriers, in general, provide nicer service than their American counterparts? The Northwest cabin staff are less polished and less respectful than their KLM counterparts. I wonder why? Can somebody clue me in?

  25. I just landed at SEA after traveling 24 hours from MAA via FRA on Lufthansa. First leg was in business, second in coach. Each leg we had two hot meals, unlimited drinks (alcoholic and soft), and little touches like complimentary gourmet chocolates. In both classes.

    Now, each of these flights was also sold as a UA code-share. If United goes down this nickel-and-dime path, the differences between the quality of the UA and LH products will become even wider than it is today, and this is going to make code-sharing problematic. If you were LH, would you want an LH customer purchasing an LH ticket to get such an inferior product?

    Alliances and code-shares only work if the participants’ products are comparable in quality and value.

  26. Jim Sack, to Asians, service is extremely cultural. To Europeans, it is highly professional (and in Britain, just plain good manners). To US based airlines, service now is largely contractual. Entire articles have been written about the tradition of service in Europe and the actual culture of service in Asia versus the very American “Every man for himself” mythos dating back to the founding of the country.

    Waiting tables in many European countries is a life long profession, even an aspiration in some circles. Pixar based a film around the art of cooking, where the art of serving is taken just as seriously. Would you sit down to a Michelin meal with a gum-snapping high-school Valley Girl serving your table? Would you take a tattoo-emblazened, blue-highlighted college “independent” seriously as your sommelier? Doubtful. You want a chef who knows what he or she is doing and a waiter who knows what he or she is talking about, to the point of everything except preparing the meal itself.

    That base follows its brethren up in to the skies of European flag carriers. US airlines, in the face of cutbacks, hammer the message home with their onboard announcements – “Our primary concern is your safety.” Read: This is an airplane, not Nana (top end restaurant in Dallas). Unlike what American carriers have come to, the European flag carriers are holding on to the notion that transportation remains a service, in all its aspects, instead of the other way around where the service is nothing more than flying from A to B. The guys in Europe get their fair share of hate mail, have no fear, but ask British Airways where you luggage is, not so much whether the food is good.

    The Asian carriers, quite simply, rely on thousands of years of class culture and contemporary mysogonistic views towards women. Even one commenter in here remarked about the “sexy girls” on Singapore Airlines. That’s because they’re not allowed to fly past the age of 30 and must resign before that if they marry or become pregnant. With such young ages, low salaries and elaborate on board services, Singapore can afford from two to four more staff in the air than most other carriers. Ironically, it’s not too far from a fair trade. Singapore is obviously an island unto itself – the ladies get to see the world before settling down and, short of marrying well, probably rarely leaving their island country again.

    Thailand is a huge country that tends to treat its women better than most. Even so, outside of Bangkok and the beach, not much is happening in the sleepy agrarian hinterlands compared to weekends in LA, London or Sydney.

    History of the US Flight Attendant (Female): First you had to be a certified nurse in case of emergencies. Then you had to be and remain young, single, slim and sexy. “Stewardess” schools taught make-up and poise almost as much as they trained in emergency procedures and service with a smile. Back then each lady was right out of Mamie Eisenhower/June Cleaver – heels, pearls and nail polish. Through the years each of these requisites were negotiated out of collective bargaining agreements such that now, “Our Primary Concern is Your Safety!” That and a pair of crocs.

    There remain THOUSANDS of US flight attendants who can and do hold their own against their European and Asian counterparts each and every time they take to the air. They literally set the standard for casual professionalism, wearing the uniform with pride, keeping in shape as best as possible and knowing when to make a “touch” without being obsequious or perfunctory.

    Some Americans feel out of place in the formality of high end European service. Too many rules, utensils and protocols to follow. Where the Singapore MAN expects to be fawned over from takeoff to landing, some Americans give even Singapore Airlines mixed reviews because the service was too “busy,” “fussy” or just plain underfoot in their nonstop effort to serve and please. This is the gift of GOOD American flight attendants. They can make you feel as if you’re in their private home without being uncomfortable for staying too long. Sadly there aren’t enough of their ranks left and their labor contracts have taken care of the rest.

    There, in summary, is the difference, Mr. Sack. Asian carriers attitudes towards their onboard staff is right out of the 1960’s, backed by thousands of years of cultural deference towards honored and high-powered guests. With the heat of competition as airlines AND countries packed so close together, along with an equally long tradition of providing a high quality service to a visitor, the Europeans consider it no less than natural to serve gladly and proudly. The Americans? If it’s called for in their labor agreement and you’ve paid the fee, you will receive a service. If they’re having a good day or it’s in their nature as a human being, you may also receive a smile.

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