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United considers charging for ALL food and drink on international flights

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. 

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…

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 I thought it looked familiar.)

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:

$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, 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.