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

  1. Sean says:

    it occurs to me that “zone” may not be the same as class. let’s say a 767-400 gets 10 flight attendants. if the cabin has global first, there’s a larger passenger:flight attendant ratio than in 2-cabin aircraft. there may be fewer seats, but the flight attendant may be responsible for more people.

  2. Bob S. says:

    Do they count the forks and knives after the meal service? I wonder because I accidentally had a plastic knife/fork/spoon set in my carry on when I went through security and I got a stern scolding about attempting to bring a weapon onto an aircraft. It would have been funny except that the TSA agent was really worked up and I didn’t want to do my usual fool routine about sharpened pencils.

    • CF says:

      Bob S – It’s funny because someone asked this exact question. The trainers looked kind of puzzled at the thought, so apparently they don’t count them. But there is a ton of silverware used. You get 3 forks and 3 knives to last through the appetizer, salad, and main course. Then there are extras for the cheese and ice cream.

  3. A says:

    Meanwhile in coach…..

  4. franmorley says:

    Lovely (really, no sarcasm), and I’m sure this was interesting, but now take the 3-minute class on how to toss out the boxed meals we normal people get! ? _Fran

  5. David SF eastbay says:

    Over filled, unattractive, tacky looking service carts…….That just screams classy and upscale…..NOT!

  6. JayB says:

    Wonderful reports, today and yesterday. I appreciate how some people (yourself) can describe in great detail these things, interject a little of what they find is just a little wierd, well, maybe just plain crazy, yet are able to provide such a wonderfully balanced report I enjoy.

    Well done!

    Did you get any lessons on being able to quickly size up your customers? A small percentage of us our just wonderful, another small percentage are just hopeless, and the rest of us are breathing, I believe, but oh so close to …well, that’s why we have training!

  7. Greg says:

    I thought the 2 cabin vs 3 cabin service difference was because the 3 cabin planes don’t have enough galley space for the full setup in business, so more things are pre-plated.

    It’s actually the same quantity of food on both.

  8. Daniel says:

    United might want to turn their wine labels the other direction, considering the quality of wine that they serve onboard.

    Also, 2-2.5 hours for a dinner service seems like a long time. On a transatlantic flight from the east coast, don’t you want to maximize your sleeping time in business class? Seems like they might want to think about speeding things up.

    • CF says:

      Daniel – They do have an Executive Dining option which speeds things up for those who want it. We briefly talked about it but not really all that much.

      • DAB says:

        Two comments from having done EWR-LIS in business class recently:

        What is the deal with the Executive Dining option is absolutely not clear from the description you get… Also, if you want to sleep (and can, even upgraded I can’t usually and couldn’t really on that flight but maybe an hour) how you would sleep much with all the dinner going on is an issue… One guy was sleeping pretty well nearby.

        The service lasted closer to three hours, I would say, on that flight and thus was about half the flight. They should probably abbreviate somehow for the sub 7 hour flights.

        Bonus comments – as a lowly platinum that had just upgraded the flight that day (thanks to booking as part of a group I didn’t have the record locater until I checked in), my wife and I were low on the pole for getting dinner of choice. I think I got what I asked for, which wasn’t what was going to be the popular choice, and she got her second (she wanted the popular one, which I think was some kind of beef).

    • SEAN says:

      On a transatlantic flight from the east coast, don’t you want to maximize your sleeping time in business class? Seems like they might want to think about speeding things up.

      Sleep is so 2000 – with Iphones & ssuch. You know FOMO where everyone needs to check facebook every five minutes, who has time to sleep.

  9. dot says:

    I wish they could get the white wine and sparkling chilled and keep it that way… HOT WHITE wine is not very nice to drink,, they need to work on it –please !!!

  10. James S says:

    Fascinating look at how service is supposed to be performed. On most flights I’m sure it’s a different story – flight attendants have a lot to do, and “by the book service” usually goes out the window in the face of trying to get things done expediently. I’d wager that most new hires probably watch their senior colleagues cut corners and begin doing so themselves, knowing there are few, if any, consequences for doing so.

  11. gobluetwo says:

    I assume there is regular hand-washing throughout service, yes?

    • CF says:

      gobluetwo – We did talk about thorough hand-washing, though much of the service is also designed to make sure that the flight attendant doesn’t get very close to the food itself as well. I didn’t walk away with any concern about that.

      • Christina says:

        Hmm.. I was on a transpacific flight in BusinessFirst and the cheese and crackers were being served pre-plated. The crackers kept falling off the plates onto the cart. Since I was in the first row, I watched the flight attendant pick up a bunch of the crackers by hand and put them back on the plates. Needless to say I skipped the cheese… Maybe this guy was at your training for a “refresher”?

  12. USBT says:

    I’ve experienced this service many times, especially this year as the FF upgrade (GPU) clearance has returned. It’s not the best business class by a long way but the service is good, and quality (taste and presentation wise) the meals have had an upgrade this year too.

    Did they take you through the meal ordering process? They obviously don’t order all three (now four) choices for every pax so some will get disappointed. On pre-merger United (pmUA) we were asked for our first and second preference, and then the FA would go back and work out who gets what, based on FF status and the other tie breakers (fare class). You’d find out whether you got your first or second choice when served. On pmCO one attendant would sort the priority list first and then visit each pax in order (7A, then 14D, then 6B, 14C, 7C, and on and on) up and down the aisle(s) and if they ran out of an entree would apologize. pmUA was more efficient and quicker. Interested what the official line is now.

    • CF says:

      USBT – Yes, the United method wins the day. Flight attendants should go through from front to back, starting on the window side, then the middle section. Or if it’s the flight attendant in the other aisle, it’s the middle section then the window side. First and second choices are taken and then they go back to the galley to decide who gets what.

      Global Services and 1K get first pick. Then it’s a free-for-all.

  13. CP says:

    AA is very similar re: three-cabin international service. The meal presentation is better in business on a two-cabin aircraft.

  14. Sam says:

    My understanding is that the 3 cabin aircraft do not have the space for the carts (whether it be storage or maneuvering room in the gally I am not sure).

  15. Leslie in Oregon says:

    A fascinating peek into one aspect of F/A training at United. Did the training explain how crews determine which F/As will work in business (and in first)? If it is on the basis of seniority, these trainees will have plenty of time to learn from senior flight attendants how the services actually are done.

    Did the training mention anything about varying the order of the meal courses for passengers who are from places where the salad course customarily is served after the main course? This can be a big deal, since many if not most European passengers are used to, and prefer, having their salad course after the main course.

    • CF says:

      Leslie from Orgeon – They said that the crews themselves decide who works what cabin. It sounds like people have varying preferences so they work it out before the flight. I’m assuming that the more senior crews get their pick.

      Also there was no talk about varying the order of courses. I don’t think that’s something United does, though maybe it’s possible if the traveler orders the Executive Dining option (quicker service, all at once).

  16. Hockey Puck says:

    Cranky, Can you compare the meal selection process at UA compared to AA’s FEBO? Great column BTW

  17. Mahée Ferlini says:

    Hi, I enjoyed your review, I guess it won’t hurt to consider the amount of work and preparation that go into trying to achieve the perfect travel meal service. It does not sound easy to do. Thank you for the insight!

  18. Ascot says:

    Noce write up CF. Your attention to detail is excellent. Thank you for sharing.

  19. Ascot says:

    Oh dear…I meant ‘nice’.

  20. Carl says:

    I can’t help but be somewhat confused by the significant attention to detail of the service – and the relative labor expense – when UA has lowered the food quality so significantly in what is almost certainly a misplaced effort to cut costs. The coffee is almost undrinkable dreck. The second meal wouldn’t have qualified as a coach meal 15 years ago. The appetizers are mostly gross. The ice cream is cheap. The cheese is so cheap as to be not worth serving, just skip that course, and save the final 40c in ingredient costs. And probably $2 in plating and catering overhead. Seriously if they spent an extra $4 in ingredient costs they could probably make the meal twice as good. Penny wise and pound foolish.

    AA and DL really aren’t any better but foreign airlines like NH CX SQ seem to have far, far better food.

  21. Cedarglen says:

    What a fun (hilarious) post. Perhaps it might be less expensive to put new B.F. FAs on a 1:1 status for a half-dozen flights, so they see it all, first-hand.
    In the end, it is just food and nothing close to 4-star food. My only serious complaint with froward cabin service on ANY airline is that all of them apparently continue to use on-board potable/tanked water for their coffee and tea. Even the world’s best coffee beans, not served on airplanes, can mast the horrible taste of tanked, infected water.
    Glad that you had a good time.
    -CG

  22. I always knew that flight attendants always had a lot to do and it is not an easy job (certainly, not one that I would want to do). But I never realized how much detail was given to service a meal in BusinessFirst Class. I imagine that there is little to no training involving meal service in Coach.

  23. Cedric says:

    A few comments.
    As a passenger that PAYS for Business & First class and who has flown SWISS, Lufthansa, Brussels, and United – I have to say that Continental really ruined a great United Business & First Intl SERVICE product.
    Continental’s mentality was that of a LCC like it’s former self – People’s Express. The International Service Training used to be a 3-4 day in-depth training – I know because they used to base the training at a hotel I stayed at often in SFO and got to chat with some of the FA’s.

    Granted the new United is getting better – slowly. The business class (excuse me BusinessFirst) seat is one of the best across the board. The service is improving – but slowly. Personally I think the ictures above in this article are embarrassing: silverware and place settings askew, nothing orderly. FA’s deciding amongst themselves how to service the middle seats – really? There should be specific guidelines regarding ALL aspects of service. On a recent flight I had a FA ask me “Do you want cheese?” Really?? How about “May I offer you something from our cheese selection?” Then she proceeded to “stab” the cheese to get it on the plate – it was hilarious and embarrassing to watch. I loved the “Do you want more wine?” question. The presentation of the silverware packet could use some more flair too. At least they finally got rid of those post merger wine goblets that had no branding on them and looked like a plastic blown glass !

    Sadly, the International First product is being phased out – but at least should be kept for those PAYING for it. As long as the seats are sold as First – they should be serviced as First Class.
    The new United really should take a cue from StarAlliance partners SIngapore, Swiss, Brussels, ANA, and Lufthansa on service. WOuld also love to see the 777 & 747 2-4-2 seating changed. When will United get with the program and offer 1-2-1??? Oh that’s right – Jeffy is cheap!

  24. Cedarglen says:

    I agree with you, Cedric. Of course, no airline will disclose what they budget for a BC/FC meal, (excluding booze) but UA/CON has already cut it to the bone. What is left for them to compete with? Seats may vary a bit, IFE and WiFi connectivity vary a lot, and they are left with only personal smiles and graceful attention at the seat. “If ‘ya want wine, it’ll have ‘ta be red,” and “We don’t got none,” don’t quite make it for me. I think you nailed it: UAL is trying to become a LCC with standard fares.
    I truly HATE having to say this, but how man times has it been necessary:? For long-haul international, the ONLY chance of reasonably good food/service/seats is a NON-U.S. carrier. IMO, re-regulate the fare component, restrict their ability to impose ancillary fees and let the sorry SOBs compete via SERVICE. Otherwise, fly a first-world foreign carrier that knows how to run an airline. (Growling noises heard three (First Class) rows distant.) Grr!

  25. Joe Blow says:

    Flew round trip on United Business First to and from Narita and Singapore last month. My flight down was on ANA but returned on United. The difference could not possibly have been any different. Sure, the seats might have been bigger, but the meal service for one was definitely not what I expected. In fact it was pretty damn close to what’s served on US domestic flights. How can they think frequent fliers throughout Asia wouldn’t know the difference?! They can pull this off on US domestic routes where they and all their competition are on a race to the bottom to charge as much as they can for offering as little as possible in the way of service.
    I apologize if I’m sounding like an overprivileged sod but I paid full fare and what I got was not at all what I had experienced on prior United BusinessFirst flights. Sure, they got my money that time, but I don’t think I’ll let them do that again. Fool me once…

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