It’s a long flight, say, from Washington to Tokyo. About 14 hours trapped on a plane. About two meals and a snack. So how much would you pay to eat airline food? $7? $24? Maybe even $39? That’s the question United is asking its customers as it contemplates charging for all meals in international coach.

The airline sent the survey to many of its frequent flyers, and it focuses on international flying, not domestic. (Want to take the survey yourself? Start here.) (UPDATE: The poll is now closed, having “reached the desired number of completions.”)

Economy meals on international flights have been “complimentary,” i.e., included in the base fare, forever. But in today’s let’s-use-the-price-of-oil-as-an-excuse-to-start-charging-fees-for-everything-that’s-not-bolted-down world, airlines see a window of opportunity to screw their coach customers some more.

Remember when United was framing itself as a “premium” American carrier? So much for that.

The food options United wants you to consider paying for are pictured below. “Gourmet” salads. “Premium” sandwiches. “Current” economy meals…

united food for sale survey United considers charging for ALL food and drink on international flights

Isn’t it nice how the sandwich and salad are styled and plated — good luck getting china and glassware in coach — while the current inflight meal is just pictured realistically in a plastic tray? Wouldn’t want to bias the survey sample, would we…

(As a bonus, the image they use in the survey for their current inflight coach meal is a user photo from flickr.com. I thought it looked familiar. In fact, I used the same photo a year ago here.)

United is clearly trying to gauge customer willingness to put up with this sort of nickel-and-diming. And they’re trying to get a sense of just how much those willing to put up with this are willing to take. The survey has a price-discovery component: Here are the prices I was asked to consider:

united food survey prices United considers charging for ALL food and drink on international flights

$39? Yowza. But two survey respondents in a row would get two very different suggested prices to consider. For example, the price for the current coach meal comes up at $12, $16, or even $24. Salads ranged from as low as $7 to as high as $24.

$24 salads (or $19, or $16…) are laughable. $24 for the current complimentary meal is an insult. And do you trust United to actually assemble a “restaurant quality” meal at 41,000 feet?

Look, long-haul international flying is not like domestic flying, both in terms of duration, and in terms of competition. People need to eat, and with carry-on limits, we can’t all bring along a movable feast.

But beyond that, United needs to remember that not every airline is racing toward the bottom like they are. If anything, there are some quality airlines out there — outside the U.S., mostly — which actually know a little something about customer service. If United were to implement this sort of pricing, I would encourage everyone to pursue alternate carriers. You could even stick within the Star Alliance — Lufthansa, ANA, Asiana, Singapore, to name a few… — if you need to keep status or earn miles.

As I’ve said again and again, this a-la-carte pricing model is going out of control, and is making it harder and harder to make price comparisons. Paying for food only adds another layer to the onion.

Take United’s poll (Update: now closed), and let them know how you feel. Your opinion may not stop this from happening: The phrasing suggests that it’s coming, and it’s only a matter of which items, and at which price.

But remember, you can “respond” in the most important way possible: With your pocketbook.

Thanks to reader Patrick for the heads-up, and for pointing me toward this FlyerTalk thread for more datapoints!

pixel United considers charging for ALL food and drink on international flights

20 Responses to “United considers charging for ALL food and drink on international flights”

  1. Arvin Bautista Says:

    I am about to fly to the philippines with someone who’d never left the US before, and I’m glad that the cheapest flights we found were on Malaysian airlines and Philippine Airlines; Given how potentially exhausting our trip within the country will be, it’s of some solace knowing that it could’ve gone so much worse if we’d decided to take any american airline.

  2. Jamman Says:

    When the last person at United leaves please turn the light out. Thanks.

  3. Lea Says:

    As someone who is ‘location independent’ (we run our business from anywhere and have no official ‘home’), I’ve been following your updates about how US airlines are squeezing their customers more and more and to be quite honest, would avoid any US airline like the plague, off the back of all these developments.

    We’ve been moving around Middle-East, Africa and Asia this past year – I’d choose any Asian airline over a US airline any day!

  4. ML Harris Says:

    The price ranges are a market research technique to determine true price preferences in an option world. It doesn’t mean they are looking at $24 for the slop they serve now (boy, could it look sloppier?), it’s a way to determine comparative preferences. There’s an actual science behind it.

    FWIW: given the option of an Asian flag carrier or United, I have to say, I’m flying with the Asian flag carrier. They apparently haven’t discovered that the proper model for running an airline is by racing to the bottom.

  5. Patrick Says:

    See, this sort of thing is why I’m glad I took my previous employer up on their offer to have me work in the UK. All the travel I’ve done the past 18 months has been on European carriers, and with the exception of Bulgarian Air, they’ve all offered better service than any of the American carriers.

    And I’ll be trying out SAS’ Economy Extra seating in a couple of weeks when I travel back to the States for a quick vacation.

  6. Andy Says:

    European carriers offer complimentary wine or even beer on transatlantic flights in economy. That wasn’t a reason for me to choose them over United if there was a price difference. United’s service was markedly worse though…

  7. Mark Ashley Says:

    I would add that Virgin Atlantic is already putting ads up on the internet inviting you to “hit the road to London, with free drinks”… Their website touts their free food and drink in economy, and I would imagine that they, and other international airlines, would consider marketing this point more aggressively if United and others continue to chase more “ancillary revenue” like this.

  8. Cranky Flier Says:

    Ah yes, you were quite lucky with that $9 salad. The $24 one made me choke on my $2 glass of water purchased from US Airways.

    But, as I said in my post on this subject today (great minds choose like topics?), this wouldn’t bother me at all if it meant I could get a great meal onboard. I think the problem is in the execution, and we both know how good the airlines are at that!

  9. Diane Says:

    Let me continue to count the reasons why I try to avoid flying with United despite it being the airline where I have most of my FF miles.

    Flying internationally is hard enough given the distances & comfort level. Eating and sleeping is what most of us do just to pass the time. Charging us for crappy food doesn’t jive with me.

    The airlines need to consider how many of these changes their customers will tolerate. How many customers do they need to loose before they realize it’s not worth the money? I for one, am sick of the constant changing of fees and service.

  10. t Says:

    Disgusting. Are we supposed to starve for 12+ hours?

    Also, why is there no option to say, “Yeah I flew from the U.S. to ____ but NOT on United”? It just assumes that if I don’t fly United, I’m not flying at all?

    Absolutely ridiculous policies from United. I’ve never flown them internationally (I’d rather give my money to an airline that knows how to treat it’s passengers, i.e. Singapore, Asiana, etc., even if it takes a little longer to reach the destination), and I’m not about to start.

    Domestically, I’ll stick with JetBlue, Southwest, or Virgin America. Most American airlines are junk and think they can get away with screwing over the passengers in an effort to save money. Someone will be saving money all right – ME, since I won’t be flying your crap airline and paying $40 for cafeteria quality food.

  11. S A Says:

    I’m not a lawyer, but isn’t there a liability risk in doing something like this?

    On a bus or train, a passenger who needs food can run out and grab something during a stop. An air passenger, not so much.

    And with TSA restrictions, carry on limits, etc., how long before someone gets dehydrated or passes out in flight because they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the extortionary prices?

    Paying extra for an UPGRADE to the free food or drink makes sense to me (just like buying a beer instead of drinking the Coke). But something has to be included on these long flights, or you’re going to see trouble.

    US Airways just started charging for onboard water, btw, which I think I’ve seen mentioned on this site when it was announced.

    People, fly foreign airlines when you can. People have mentioned Singapore, ANA, and Virgin. All good choices. I just wish they could fly within the USA. (Like US airlines are now allowed to do within Europe, by the way.)

  12. Lee Says:

    I was excluded from the survey when I checked no for international travel on United for the last six months. But I have made three round trips SFO to Paris in that time on Air France, simply as a tourist. I travel Economy and pay a higher price for the nonstop flight, but meals and beverages are complimentary, with a snack bar available for self-service mid-flight. I do compare airlines when choosing a flight, and going through a hassle to get fed and hydrated on a flight would eliminate that airline as a choice.

  13. Diane Says:

    I was excluded in the United survey too. I flew internationally in May and June on British Airways.

  14. Dr. Vino Says:

    How much would they charge for “restaurant quality” wine?!?

  15. John Says:

    United Airlines is a company that treats its customers with contempt. I have been a Mileage Plus member for as long as I can remember and I tend to fly internationally at least once or twice a year.

    Flying a foreign airline, including United’s Star Alliance partners, is a night and day difference. There’s room, complementary snacks and beverages, and friendly staff on board. Being on United is like jabbing yourself in the leg with a fork.

    United is going to kill its most profitable routes (trans-pacific) with this scheme. Do you think travelers who have flown Singapore, Korean Air, JAL, etc. are going to pay for meals and drinks? They will put themselves out of business on these routes if this plan is instituted.

    Needless to say, I just emptied my Mileage Plus account with one of United’s European partners and I will no longer be flying United in the future. I’ve had enough.

  16. Scott Says:

    And Continental’s joining Star alliance can’t come soon enough!!!!!! Goodbye Mileage”less” and hello OnePass!!!

    Seriously Mr. Tilton – I hope you enjoy seeing AA, DL and CO pick off the pieces of your empire at auction! With policies like these I will vote strongly with my wallet – may you pay the price!!! Goodbye and good riddance UA!!!

  17. Bradley Says:

    I have been laughing at all the whining over paying for a meal or a glass of water. Americans are the most spoiled group of human beings in the world. Grow up people and get a life. I travel domestically and internationally over 1 million miles a year and I have more things to worry about than paying for a drink or meal. I choose to eat prior to flying and or bring a meal to eat on while I am traveling. Whats the big deal? If you guys were such royalty that you consider yourselves to be, take a charter jet!

  18. Downgrade made official: United eliminates free meals on transatlantic flights » Upgrade: Travel Better Says:

    [...] comes as no surprise to regular readers of this blog. After all, United was polling some of its customers just two weeks ago to gauge their tolerance for international buy-on-board [...]

  19. Spearhead Soldier Says:

    I’ve flown United a couple times internationally since this past September. I had been off the air for a while, and was shocked that I had to pay for a drink on an international United flight when my one-way ticket from western Europe cost most than $1,000. Then I just found out today that United will not honor business class lounge for business class flight passengers from Star Alliance flights. Shocked again I was. United has gone from my favorite to being simply a cheap jerk. Given what I paid for my flights (not discount fares), they truly blow. What else can I say? Well, I can say this: given any similarity in fares, I will ALWAYS chose the European Star Alliance partner from now on. Plain and simple. Loyalty begets loyalty, and my loyalty is out the window on a six dollar glass of wine.

  20. clydefrog Says:

    I flew United for the first time in June of 2009. I paid $6 for a QuikPik snack box (not bad, actually) and got free Sprite and water with it. Both planes on my round trip were packed so I really don’t think anyone’s predictions that UAL is going to lose business do to this are true.

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