Did Lufthansa Impact United’s Decision to Reverse International Meal Charges?

Meals, United

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.

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25 comments on “Did Lufthansa Impact United’s Decision to Reverse International Meal Charges?

  1. They are a shambles art the moment. It’s not as if PR is a poorly paid profession, either, and you don’t need to be good at it (apparently). I noticed that my booking changed the other day from Food for Purchase on the LHR-IAD to the IAD-LHR segment, but that was probably their mistake, not in response to my measured yet firmly written complaint (to which I have no response).

    But I’m glad they are reconsidering.

  2. Just checked – no food for purchase on any of the segments on my trip now. Hurrah for the Germans!

  3. Cranky–is there any chance that they were’t 100% committed to the idea of transatlantic buy-on-board in the first place, and they internally knew that the possibility existed that they might have to pull it before it ever really got off the ground? They seem to suddenly be framing the whole thing as a “test program” (could’ve fooled us 2 or 3 weeks ago when they made the announcement) that was never meant to suggest permanent changes, blah, blah, blah. I think your Lufthansa theory is a lot more feasible, but perhaps their marketing folks, in a moment of desperation, used the whole concept as a semi-bluff to see how it would play in the media and with the pax, and now United is playing the role of the responsive and benevolent service provider in a futile attempt to gain passenger favor and raise its image. …I guess it’s unlikely that they really believe we’re all that stupid.

  4. I booked two transatlantic flights on LH (one without PTV/IFE in Eco!) just because I could rather live without PTV than without food. I had UA and LH as options for all four segments but opted for LH due to the food thing as well as general degration on US-domestic service.
    Without the revenue sharing part LH couldn’t care less. But when US/UA make a bad impression on the StarAlliance in general somebody probably has to stand up and complain. There are ‘cheap’ StarAlliance members but a bad US/UA service would really impact the Alliance from my point of view.

  5. Funny. I had the same thought. If someone books a Lufthansa flight (with a LH number) they expect a certain level of service. Europeans will probably survive not being able to drink wine or beer for free — but no complimentary food. That’s like flying a LCC — which Lufthansa rightly does not want to be associated with.

  6. Zach – Apparently someone wasn’t 100% committed! If this was a marketing ploy, that’s a terrible, terrible move. I can’t believe that to be true. I think they probably didn’t think this through very well, and it came back to bite them. So they had to reverse course.

  7. An incident like this just shows me how poor the communication is in large legacy airlines. How could you not run this up the flag pole with all interested parties? How could it get approved when clearly enough people were against it to put a stop to it?

  8. Just wonderful. I love how customer and flight attendant “feedback” drove the original decision, and now the very same base that apparently gave the go ahead to the original asinine decision has prompted UA to pull back. Brilliant!

  9. BTW, Cranky – wonderful spin on the issue. A great additional perspective I never considered, and that only someone with insider business knowledge could have illuminated. Thanks!

  10. Cranky- I feel you are being quite hard on United on this one, but maybe it takes a cynical mind to get to the bottom of things, and that I share with you. I did write to United to express my distain at the thought of charging for meals on International flights, so maybe there were others, who knows but always remember ” That the pen is mightier than the sword”


  11. Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me hat over the past few years United has had the least enthusiasm toward its passengers of the three I frequently fly; United NWA and Delta.

  12. Bonehead move on United’s part, not just in being the first American carrier (to try) to do this internationally, but because of the codeshare agreement with a European airline that clearly would oppose such a move. Maybe if something like a USAirways/RyanAir merger took place, this could stick (and possibly encourage other airlines to join in), but for now, I’m glad the pay-for-airline-food idea has gone south. Then again, I still say that food-for-purchase on a 6 hour flight is unfair, regardless of whether it being long-haul domestic (NYC-LAX) or international (NYC-LON).

    By the way, Cranky, your new profile pic is a big improvement. ;)

  13. No surprise that partner airlines pushed UA back here. It one thing to cut down service on their home market, it’s another thing if they do it on a shared market like those north atlantic flights.
    This whole codeshare thing is there to give you more options. Letting this happen would mean less options for LHs experienced customers and a real upset for those passengers who rely on LH service on a LH flight. Theres no way no they can allow this on routes they offer too.

  14. EndlosLuft: LH has PTVs in Eco on about a third of their long haul fleet, and even almost 2/3 if you fly from Munich (All the A330-300 and A340-600 have it). It will be 2/3 fleet wide (all but the 744) by the of the IATA Winter schedule.

  15. Well I said this back on your August 20 blog on this subject. “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.”

    I would bet all the non-U.S. Star Alliance carriers got down on UA over this, as it will make them look bad. And did the no brain leaders at UA really think the public wouldn’t be up at arms about meal purchase over the Atlantic.

    I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, the airlines keep saying they are adding fees because “this is what our customers want”. That is such bull, who wants to pay more money for things when the fares keep going up and not down to justify the “ala carte” fees.

  16. Will someone please stick a fork in the meandering mass that is United? These guys were done back at their last strike, they’re just a flying bucket of planes.

    Seriously if I was in a union position here I’d deliver my resignation in person to Chicago and give them the finger on the way out.

    I’ve never seen a greater collection of management incompetence than at United.

  17. LH et. al. may have pressured United in to reversing their decision, true enough. United’s management, notorious for taking inordinate amounts of time to make a decision, made this decision long before releasing the survey – they just wanted a percentage figure to work with. And I’m fairly sure they “vetted” every stakeholder within United before going forward. Since Star isn’t part of their management structure (they have their own offices in Los Angeles, I believe, with HDQ somewhere in Europe – CF….can you confirm?), it never occurred to whatever independently operating “Survival Committee” they’ve appointed to send an internal decision up the flagpole to the rest of their Alliance brethren. So…none of the obvious questions came up, like what if I’m LH-ticketed but UA-operated, do I get a meal, or what if I’m UA-ticketed but OS-operated how come I don’t have to pay.

    And note the continued arrogance of the airline. “We’ve heard our premier and executive customers loud and clear.” As I mentioned earlier, the ones with corporate expense plans who HAVE the money to pay may have found something in their policies that disagreed intensely with this idea. But what about the families, retirees and other budgeted travelers who don’t have buckets of money for this kind of expense. They weren’t listening to this group? Didn’t care in the first place?

    From a pure revenue contribution perspective, United still means a great deal to the other Star carriers. Otherwise I would have moved for their removal quite some time ago, allowed this idiotic idea to go forward and simply taken on board all of their former customers jumping ship for a clearly superior travel product.

  18. Nick – There’s no question I’m being hard on United, but if the airline wants to talk about offering a premium experience, then I’m going to hold them to a higher standard.

    Optimist – Star is headquartered in Frankfurt, I believe. It’s not the fact that they didn’t run this by Star Alliance that surprises me, but Lufthansa is a different story. These two airlines share revenue on transatlantic flights, so these changes have a big impact on Lufthansa.

  19. Cranky — Very smart analysis. Question: Aren’t consumer protection laws related to travel in Germany much stronger than those in the U.S.? I wonder if, in addition to revenue, there was a customer-expectation/legal concern on Lufthansa’s part as well?

  20. Peg – That’s an interesting question to which I don’t know the answer. I would be surprised if German law said that you had to feed someone for free, to be honest. But I suppose it’s possible.

  21. I don’t understand why revenue C- and J-class customers fly UA at all — you can get a guaranteed lay-flat seat on VS, BA, LH, AF, etc. etc., but go with an American airline and you might get stuck with a non-lay-flat seat if you’re on the wrong model of bird.

    I’m a government employee, so my hands are tied by the Fly America Act (for now) and the fact that we pay $800 r/t for LHR-IAD tickets on UA. (I could take LH flights as long as they’re booked on a UA flight number, and with the way UA’s going I may have to look into that.)

    But in the private sector… why the heck would I pay for business class and get something less? And why are the seats in the LHR T1 *A business-class lounge worse than what WN is rolling out to their gate areas in the States? The same reason that UA thinks it can compete with LCCs by having higher prices, more fees, and worse service, apparently.

  22. I was really amazed to hear this! I’ve used United several times for flights to Latin America from Europe, as an alternative to using Iberia. United wins in quality and service hands down every time, which is why I prefer the longer connection trhough Washington (United) to the faster one through Madrid (Iberia). I was really under the impression that US carriers offer better service then Europeans, and then I read this..

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