Skip to main content

United backs off buy-on-board meals on international flights

As quickly as United rolled out its plan to start selling food on international flights, they’ve backed off again.

One month ago, United polled its customers about their willingness to pay for food on international flights. Two weeks later, they made it official. Now, two more weeks pass, and they back off.

What gives? The letter to disgruntled customers suggests that this is a response to customer feedback. But I’m sure they got lots of angry letters when they rolled out checked-luggage fees, fuel surcharges, and award-ticketing charges. And none of that stopped them from sticking with those add-ons.

If it’s any customer, it’s the contracted corporate customer who has to be p.o.’ed here.

What I’m also hearing is that the airlines’ partners in the Star Alliance are another major source of the pressure. Disgust at the dilution of the Star Alliance brand? Fear of reprisals from their own customers on United-operated codeshares, enraged at having to pay a fee to eat a hockey-puck sandwich? Or just the last straw, after seeing more and more fees pile up?

For some of the other changes, announced at the same time, things are still going forward. United’s business class will still receive coach meals on domestic 3-class planes (only 16 affected flights anymore).

Bottom line: The international meal fee is dead. For now. But don’t expect this to be the last time you hear this concept floated, at United or anywhere else. This is guaranteed to be one of those zombie ideas you think you’ve killed, but it just keeps rising again, under the guise of “testing new ideas.”

Full text of United’s letter, announcing the fee reversal, below:

Dear (redacted),

Thank you for your direct, candid feedback on the test we had planned to launch in the fourth quarter for food choices on some of our flights. We heard you and have decided not to move forward with the test of offering customers buy-on-board options in United Economy on certain trans-Atlantic flights. We will continue to offer complimentary hot meals on those flights.

The response from you and many of our corporate customers, even before we launched the test, told us what we would have undoubtedly learned had we proceeded – you value our hot meal service in economy class for international flights.

In this environment, where higher costs driven by volatile fuel prices are now the norm, we must continue to tailor products and services so that we provide you with choices and competitive fares. As such, we will continue to be proactive in testing new ideas.

On October 1, we will proceed with the test of new, complimentary options for United Business customers on three-cabin aircraft used for domestic routes, which represents 16 daily flights. Customers on these flights will receive complimentary fresh sandwiches, salads, breakfast, snack boxes or snacks, depending on the length of flight and time of departure. They will also continue to enjoy complimentary beverages, including beer, wine and cocktails. We will evaluate the results and determine next steps by the end of the year.

It’s also important to note that full meals will still be served on our p.s. transcontinental flights.

Thank you again for your feedback. We will continue to listen and make changes that enable us in this environment to provide you with the choices you value.


Graham Atkinson
Chief Customer Officer