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Downgrade made official: United eliminates free meals on most transatlantic flights

The major airlines’ race downhill has shifted into overdrive. United, once an airline that tried to make the customer experience better, is making hypotheticals real. They’re charging for meals on flights to Europe, raising prices for stuff sold on board, and reducing the service offered in some domestic premium classes.

And all the while, they’re blaming oil prices and cynically saying this represents customer preference and expands choice. Could someone remind them that oil is off its highs? Alrighty then.

This 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 meals. Now those charges are reality. I guess they interpreted those survey results with impressive speed…

One thing that’s missing from the new pay-to-eat-while-trapped-in-an-aluminum-tube regime is an improvement in quality, which was implied in earlier surveys. You’ll recall that United’s poll included a “restaurant quality meal” as an option. That doesn’t appear to be on offer. Rather, you’ll be asked to pay good money for “fresh and snack box offerings” — read: shelf-stable snack boxes, as you already know them, or hockey-puck sandwiches. No price points are mentioned. Uh oh.

So who among you told United in the poll that you’d happily pay $30 for a meal? Fess up!

This is yet another embarrassment to the once-grand tradition of American aviation. United has become a pathetic, washed-up mess of an airline. Patriotism be damned, I’m a consumer: If United is the primary carrier on an international route I need to fly, I would bend over backwards to fly another airline, preferably a carrier without an American flag on the tail.

The internal United memo announcing the changes, confirmed by reputable sources, is below. Comments inserted.

Catering Changes Provide Value and Options

Cost reduction and revenue generating opportunities continue to be the focus of every division throughout the company. In the wake of high fuel prices and a challenging economic environment, we must continue to examine every aspect of our business and find new ways to improve our day-today operations through efficiencies that still meet our customers’ expectations.

Comment: Value. Choices. And the fuel excuse, again. And I ask you, does charging for crappy food meet your expectations? Browse over to non-US airlines and read about their onboard service. Let me know if your expectations are still being met. Back to the memo…

And we can expect this will continue to drive changes to the way we do business.

Comment: So the worst is yet to come?

Fleet and capacity reductions announced in June have already resulted in significant changes for our division, many of which were implemented in July and August. And there are more changes scheduled for September and October.

These changes are difficult, but necessary, and we do not make them lightly.

However, they enable us to reduce costs and generate additional revenue while preserving a differentiated product for our premium cabin customers both internationally and domestically. Our industry is changing, and in United’s ongoing efforts to offer overall value and competitive fares, we need to tailor our products and services to what the customer values and can choose from accordingly.

Comment: Which services is the customer valuing, or choosing? Choices are being taken away, not added.

The following is a general overview of the upcoming changes. You can expect detailed information in the coming weeks.

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.

Comment: No more Biscoff?? Noooooooooo… the last tasty freebie snack in the American sky, now gone…

• 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.

Effective Oct. 1

Increasing Buy on Board Prices

• Shelf-stable items increase from $5 to $6.

• Fresh items increase from $7 to $9.

Comment: Raising prices bothers me little, frankly, if these were already items being assessed a fee. Everything costs more at the supermarket, so why not in the sky. No problems here.

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.

Comment: This is a real downgrade. Previously, on a 3-class plane traveling domestically, you’d have three classes of service. Not anymore. Now, the business-class seats get coach service, just comped. It’s like the Spirit Airlines “big front seat” model.

And the fact that they are cutting back on the number of flight attendants signals that there won’t be more attentiveness to customers in any cabin. This signals to premium-cabin customers that it’s not all that premium. United seems to think it’s all about the seat, and not the service. And that’s just sad.

Buy on Board Offered Out of IAD to Europe (except KWI)

• Replacing complimentary meals in UE with BOB fresh and snack box offerings.

• Economy staffing breakpoints for all aircraft will be adjusted to current North America BOB staffing guidelines.

Comment: There it is. The meal downgrade. Flights to Europe will be buy-on-board only, effective October 1. Folks on the flight to Kuwait should chow down for the rest of the flying public. Flights to Asia are safe for the time being, too.

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.

All in all, another notch down for the United customer experience. As stated earlier, United is giving its international competitors more and more advantage. No doubt other American carriers will follow suit on some or all of these changes.