United’s Meal Charges Earn the Cranky Jackass Award

Cranky Jackass, Meals, United

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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50 comments on “United’s Meal Charges Earn the Cranky Jackass Award

  1. FAA minimums would mean 1 or 2 flight attendants per flight? Not sure on that. Canadian minimums (which usually mimic U.S. minimums) dictate at least 3 flight attendants on your average Boeing 737

  2. Do you think that Continental will follow suit?

    The elimination of complimentary meal service to Europe is mind-boggling. I haven’t memorized their route structure, but does this mean that on a flight comparable to, say, IAD-Moscow (almost 10 hours–not sure if United flies this route or not, but I digress…), people are forced to either starve or spend $10 on a stale turkey sandwich?

  3. Woah. No free meal on a trans-Atlantic? Un-ber-lievable.

    What makes this even worse is that it’ll mean we won’t be surprised when Ryanair launches a no-frills trans-Atlantic.

  4. Michael,

    Ryanair should do just that–offer no-frills transatlantic service and join the Star Alliance so that I can still earn miles by flying with them instead of United ;-)

    While no meal on trans-atlantic flights is appalling, I’m even more put off by United’s false advertising (which Cranky points out in his post). No-frills long-haul travel isn’t an awful idea (see Freddy Laker), but let’s call a spade a spade here. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes.

  5. Business suicide, this is. Maybe, they’ll give me a free meal if I continue not to check bags in on transatlantic flights. I don’t understand United. They’ve never been as glitzy as Virgin, or as esteemed as Lufthansa (for e.g.), but I have always found them professional, competitive and (almost always in my experience) on-time. Do these guys like Chapter 11 or something??

    Ryanair are (allegedly) already planning a transatlantic service. Can’t wait.


  6. Zach – I don’t think Continental will follow suit at all. I mean, these guys still have food in coach on domestic flights! For the last 10+ years, Continental has understood the importance of providing a good product and they’ve found a great deal of loyalty for that. While they probably will evaluate ways to increase ancillary revenue, I don’t think we’ll see them stoop to something as drastic as this.

    IAD-Moscow is going to start, but it hasn’t yet. We’ll see if they make an exception for that when it does. Right now, the longest flight that will be affected is Dulles-Rome. That blocks in at 8h30m eastbound and 9h40m westbound.

  7. Thanks for the response, Cranky. I would seriously consider switching my allegiance to Continental, but sadly, I live in a United/American town. I’ve been toying with the idea of making American my airline of choice, but everytime I fly them, I’m reminded why I won’t. I wish Southwest would start international service (ha).

  8. How much chaos is going to be on board the flight? Are they only going to accept US Dollars? Will they both to make the investment in credit card machines so that “meal” service doesn’t take 4 hours?

    Probably the best protest (other than using another airline which in many cases is not possible/allowable/viable) would be for everybody to use $20 bills so that they run out of change and have to give the food away. Unless they specify otherwise before your purchase, they have to accept any form of US cash per federal law regardless of how many $1 bills they have.

  9. Shane I would guess it will be entirely cashless. A few other U.S. airlines already employ this.

    As for me I’ll continue to have a small stock of apples/bananas/powerbars, and nuts in my messenger bag. My nutritional needs aren’t dependent on a tiny bag of pretzels.

    Unfortunately we’ll be subjected to more of one of my major annoyances: The stench of hour old McDonalds burgers and fries congealing in a greasy paper bag. God help us.

  10. Shane – I personally wouldn’t recommend that form of protest. The flight attendants don’t want to be dealing with this anymore than you do, and using $20 bills only makes their lives harder.

  11. god. now we cant even eat when we pay 200$+ for a crappy seat in economy.

    do tou know that a md-82 crashed today at Madrid Barajas (MAD)?

  12. I am not flying much out of IAD, and in the last year my five or six trips to Europe have all been in C (mostly upgraded). But let’s say I have to fly from the east coast to FRA. Assume further that the basic ticket price is the same between UA (IAD-FRA) and CO (IAD-EWR-FRA). I could choose UA and fly in E+. I’d then incurr an extra $9 for a meal on board or eat prior to departure and bring some snacks. Or I could fly in CO’s regular economy seat and get the included-in-the-fare airline economy meal. Same for the way back.

    Quite frankly, I am not a big fan of economy meals. I am, however, a big fan of as much leg room as possible. So for me, E+ would always be the deciding factor in this scenario. I can carry on food and entertainment, but I can’t carry on extra space.

    So — and that’s probably what UA is counting on at least as far as elites are concerned — this move isn’t going to make me switch airlines.

    (and yes, I agree with you on United not having any vision and strategy…)

  13. I am a United Global Service 1K member. I -buy- premium tickets. I just checked my 2007 credit card invoices. My business is worth roughly $65-75,000/year to UA. So now, when I (or my company) buys me a domestic business class ticket, on flights other than p.s., UA will have the gall to tell me to fork over money for a BOB meal? Or offer me the BOB product?

    United, you are going to lose some of your best customers, starting with me.

  14. My group does a lot of flying, we have 3 1k members and 3 people who are exec premier. We all took the survey and thought nothing would come of it, as much as I like my miles when I travel on my own $ I will be flying a different airline from now on. Jet Blue/American Virgin for US flights and probably a different international carrier for overseas flights.
    It’s ridiculous that they value whatever customer good will they have at less than 2 million a year.

  15. I can’t wait to see how many of the Star Alliance frequent fliers refuse to give their business to United and opt for the other partners.

    The best thing that could happen to UA — and Star for that matter — is to liquidate this mess. Amazing how far the once proud have fallen.

  16. If I ever have to take UA across the pond I’ll make a point to bring aboard the most greasy and messy food I can find in the whole terminal. I imagine that many others would be doing the same. Which reminds me of the CNBC special “A week in the life of AA.” The maintenance guy said he believes people bring tools aboard given some places he’s found chewing gum. Can only imagine how filthy UA planes will be with everyone bringing snacks, candy and food of all types aboard.

  17. As a former Premier Exec member it has been really distressing (but not surprising) to watch United’s demise.

    I’m thankful I don’t have to travel for business much anymore and while I still have just over 100k in frequent flyer miles in my account, when I do travel lately I look for alternatives to United

    Any predictions on how long they’ll be viable?

  18. Marc – No predictions from me. They’ve proven that they can get all kinds of money from Chase (got them out of bankruptcy and just purchased a ton of prepaid miles). So, as long as there is cash out there, they can probably get away with survival.

  19. Those fools in Elk Grove! Could UA management shoot themselves in the foot any worse if they tried? Schizophrenic is right — a US Ryanair or a LH wannabe? Figure it out United! Be one thing or the other. And stop with those wasteful and ridiculous TV animated ads.

  20. And my peers and team members laugh at me when I fly WN out of DAL instead of UA or AA out of DFW. At least I know I am getting good service, better on-time performance, free snacks, and earn free trips way faster (especially on BS).

    Someone remind me, why exactly do we call them “no-frills airlines”? At this point isn’t it just “airlines” and “airlines”? Is there even a difference anymore?

  21. Wow, why don’t they shut down their booking engine and replace with a simple ‘Customer? $%!§ off you stupid…’. I’ll fly with UA in Dec to Europe. And I thought I buy a product that includes a meal, actually I think this is even confirmed in my booking. LH won’t be very pleased handling all the hungry-angry customers, that booked a LH code and starved over the ocean.

  22. I have no desire to fly Untied.

    I can understand having crap while non reving, but when I buy a ticket, it will be on a foreign carrier.

  23. Pity the people who think they are flying Lufthansa only to find themselves on a LH/UA codeshare flight operated by United and have to buy a meal. United’s international pay for food operation is going to cause passenger backlash to the international Star Alliance carriers that codeshare with UA. This seems like another reason to fly on non-U.S. international carriers.

  24. Pingback: The Flying Critic
  25. Truly worthy of a Cranky Jackass award. In fact, if you had one, it would be worthy of a Jackass Plus award (and since United is home of economy plus, it would be very fitting). United and US Airways are fighting each other to the bottom. There should be a new category for these two – LSC – Low Service Carrier.

  26. HA — I think this move is less business suicide and more a reflection of UA’s desperate struggle to stay alive! The decision to go under isn’t UA’s to make at this point… an act this insane means they must think they have nothing left to lose!

  27. I just can’t help but wonder whether Continental went to the Star Alliance with United Airlines in order to allow for a smooth transition of UA customers to Continental service when UA finally bites the dust. Schedules will already be synced, UA passengers will have experienced Continental service on codeshares, and FF will have earned many points available for use on Continental flights.

    I’m not an airline analyst or blogger, but before people blogged about it, I was definitely telling my friends the baggage fees were probably to reduce fuel use on baggage weight rather than to generate stand alone revenue. I can’t help but wonder if an ulterior motive like I stated above went into the decision of Continental execs to join Star. Thoughts?

  28. Artie – Remember, UA/CO was supposed to be a merger until CO walked away not wanting to touch that mess. So yeah, I’m guessing that there was a belief somewhere that this would result in closer integration down the road . . . or I suppose UA could just disappear and other airlines could pick at the carcass.

  29. I don’t know why everyone is complaining about loss of meals on trans-Atlantic flights… JFK-LAX takes just about the same amount of time as JFK-LHR, and you’re not offered a meal domestically. I think we should be complaining about lack of a free meal (even if people complain about the quality) for flights over a certain duration, not just the ones to Europe.

    But yes, this is a totally bone-headed move by United. I think CF had a great point when he said there’s a difference between paying for services not previously available and paying to keep services that were once free.

    What do you think the chances of Continental bailing on their agreement is? I would hate to see CO lose its Best American Legacy Carrier status (in my own mind, at least) because of the company it keeps… which can only bring it down.

  30. Benji – JFK-LHR is actually 40% further than JFK-LAX (3451mi vs 2475mi), but IAD-FCO is another 1000 miles beyond that! These are some pretty long haul flights.

    As for CO, I think they like this arrangement. It only makes them look better, so they should be able to get some traffic here from Star Alliance loyalists.

  31. You know, VX flies IAD/JFK-SFO/LAX. Oh, and they are about to add ORD.

    I’m guessing that’s not a coincidence.

  32. United 0919 LHR to IAD 6th Nov.
    Fare basis code: Booking class: V
    3,677 Award miles
    **Food for Purchase, Food for Purchase**

    B8stards! Got to bring my own sarnies now as well, having spent $1600 on a LHR-IAD-GIG-IAD-LHR itinerary. The IAD-LHR return leg does not have the same entry regarding paying for ‘food’. Shall I plan on bringing my own toilet paper as well??

  33. Bobber – I’m thinking a “per minute” charge would be best. Makes it easier to understand and hurries people up.

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