A Theory On Why United Airlines Food Is So Bad

Woody Allen captured the essence of United Airlines food perfectly in 1977’s Annie Hall, “Boy the food at this place is really terrible. And such small portions!”

Before the pandemic United reduced the number of flight attendants working in business class, and started pre-plating their food. Their entrees are served in bowls (not really plates) and I understand they’re looking at reducing the size of the bowls, since the current appetizer won’t fit alongside it on a single tray.

But here’s, finally, an explanation for why the food is actually bad,

I had dinner with my friend who is the GM of the inflight kitchen last night and he filled me in a little more on what exactly UA is doing at least domestically (he does not oversee a in-flight kitchen that caters UA internationally), essentially they contracted with LSG [Sky Chefs] to prepare frozen meals and ship them and any side dishes/deserts to the local in-flight kitchen.

All the local kitchen does is wash any dishes, load the trays, oven trays, load trolley carts, etc. and it is far cheaper for UA than if an airline caters the meal locally.

…Essentially he said that UA has tried to improve the frozen meals (just like AA did) but it will only make things somewhat better, unless UA goes back to fresh, the quality will only be soo good.

Not only is the food terrible, but there isn’t enough of it.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I actually believe every word of this. UA has made cuts, especially since COVID and now it’s tough to open the checkbook and get back to doing a proper job of catering. Especially with the current rampant inflation (that didn’t exist prior to 2021).

  2. I just flew business class round trip Denver – Chicago. The food was so bad that it was not edible. I would like to see the United executives sit down and eat this slop. When we fly Lufthansa the food is really good , why can’t United learn a little from them . When you pay for business class , you expect something edible . Not what united serves . 2 thumbs down United.

  3. I know you get what you pay for, but have LSG SkyChefs ever provided good airline food for any airline?

    It seems any airlines with decent food work with Do&Co

  4. It’s hard to know for sure, but I do think serving bad food upfront could decrease UA’s first class revenue. The pandemic-related changes to our economy mean more people are paying for their own travel with they fly, and we all know there are far fewer “free” first class upgrades. I have to believe that many people will refuse to pay for a “meh” upgrade experience, and those who value more comfort and amenities will choose to fly other airlines.

  5. So United just ordered a whole bunch of brand new aircraft for future equipment updates and expansions, which must be costing a pretty mint, yet their foods and services continue to suck … seems like their priorities need some serious “re-balancing” or else those future brand new aircraft might end up with “sub-optimal” load factors over time!

  6. The execs and accountants don’t care – period. And they certainly don’t factor in the human element.

  7. I just flew UA transcontinental economy plus. The previous day, I looked at online snackbox options. Nothing appealed to me. I brought my own Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets in my carryon and bought a big chicken Caesar salad and a pre-made ham & cheese sandwich at the airport near the gate, and I was very happy.

    As a leisure traveler, I always carry on my own food on UA. I feel sorry for business travelers on UA who are too time-pressed to carryon their own home-made food.

    After looking at this UA business class excute for a meal, I never intend to pay cash for a full business class fare: not worth it.

  8. It is truly awful. But I don’t think it will change as long as the planes are full. I will pay for F, but only if it is cheap, and am happy to fly other carriers when it makes sense. Alaska and DL have better products.

  9. It sounds like it was a really good pandemic plan, and for the fast recovery thereafter. Many airport kitchens were unable to staff or able to do prepared foods due to staffing shortages. I helped out a non-US carrier (who didn’t fly scheduled to the US at the time) doing repatriation flights and at big airports like DFW could not get anyone to cater even one 787 – no matter the price. They just didn’t have the resources. Someone from one airport marketing dept was brainstorming with me and suggested the folks who catered that airport’s local The Club lounge and one of the business class lounges. I called them up and while it wasn’t really in their wheelhouse, they were able to help me out a few places (and janitorial company ABM had the lift truck to get the food onto the plane).

    But now most places are back to business as usual with very few exceptions – mostly places that didn’t really cater pre-pandemic (like ABQ where an airport restaurant does it or RIC where the Applebee’s does it). So it is back to a cost savings move for them at this point unless they have some contract they have to wait out….

  10. Because the people who tried to ruin AA, were let go and now run UA. Parkers isn’t as dumb as you all thought.

  11. We just flew ua Polaris from iah to Frankfurt. The food was horrible. I even asked for an Asian vegetarian dish hoping it might be better than what they have typically been serving, garbage. The Polaris lounge wasn’t anything to write home about either. Ua has got to get its product together. We flew Frankfurt to turkey on Turkish air and the food was 1000% better. On our return flight home home again direct from Istanbul to iah on Turkish air and the food was delicious. The ta lounge was really good as well. There isn’t any pride in the US airliners meals, it’s shameful going from an Asian airline and getting a thoughtfully prepared meal to a US al and it’s complete dog food. Very sad.

  12. I’m a UA 2MM Platinum (1K for most of the time to get there and GS a few times) – I defected to AA many years ago but fly UA in a pinch if more convenient or less costly in domestic F. Just did SNA-ORD-DTW and to be honest the SNA-ORD meal had warning signs on it for the pre-order selection and how things sounded. Brought my own food with me and the person next to me commented on how it was a smart move. The meal my seatmate had was utterly horrendous considering that even post 9/11 when UA started normal service it was never this bad. Looking at AA meals for domestic it’s not even a category comparison vs UA. AA is light years ahead.

  13. Are all the in house catering kitchens still being used? I think the problem could be solved with some creativity and possible shadowing of airlines that actually do the catering right. You need a good production team lead and staff, pay them what they are worth and don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Stick to basics that work and switch up the menu every 3 mths. Use fresh ingredients that retain flavor and texture. Other airlines are doing it right so we know it can be done.

  14. We flew Polaris from SFO to LHR last September, and domestic F EWR-DEN-SEA in late October. The food in the Polaris lounge was good, not as much on the airplane, and on the return from Newark to Seattle we both agreed it was vomitrocious. (We did like the food in the new Newark club though.) United really needs to work on this. The comparison between Princess Grill on the Queen Mary 2 Southampton-New York and on the airplanes back to Seattle was unreal.

  15. UA food awful. All agreed on this. Some meals enough carbs and sodium than should be allowed. Personal opinion is this just cheapness. Full stop. I believe found that salad in a jar thing at an Aldi about a year ago. It sat frozen and unsold, reduced for months until Aldi tossed it. That has been the UA quality bar. Yet they keep promising. It’s just sad

  16. At least when it comes to domestic airline food….keep your expectations low and you will never be disappointed.

  17. It is strange that flyers are complaining about airline food since well forever.
    I said it numerous times and that’s my rule: Bring your own food!!

    2 ways to handle travel:
    1) You plan ahead, you bring your own food and you enjoy the flight.
    2) You don’t plan ahead, you eat garbage that you would not even dare serve to your pet, you get sick eventually and you complain about it again and again.

    Sadly, looking at the comments of this blog, I see that lots of savvy travelers (only smart travelers read this blog, right?) are stuck in the second proposition.

    It is probably time to change the way we handle meals in planes so we can stop this airline food diatribe that is getting old now.

  18. I fly United once a month, on an average, and I find their food options and quality to be the worst. If you are a vegetarian then you might as well take your own food on the plane. I travel their SFO-SIN route and most of the time the offerings are so bad I pack food from home and I fly business class all the time. The inflight service has gotten better but the food options are horrible and the quantity (when they do serve a decent meal) is small. United improved their coffee quality when they switched to illy brand but I stop drinking coffee inflight when I came across an article that said United and other airlines do not clean their water tank regularly and it could be a source for all kinds of illness. I do not know if this is true but you can do a simple google search to see so many articles on this topic.

  19. @Steve… more like when it comes to flying United, keep your expectations very low and United will only disappoint you most of the time.

    The entire airline is toilet class. The absolute clowns in charge need to focus on the passenger instead of the “cause.”

  20. Sad that UA has fallen so far in the catering department. I’ll spend my money on AA, AS and DL in the F cabin for a good dining experience. C’mon Scott, the journey matters.

  21. A bunch of whiners on this site. The food is fine. Try to have your upscale restaurant get you to Europe.

  22. lax to ewr PS flight. the food was a (F) the flight attendant was rude in business for me and my wife.
    We are both 1K. The tickets are back to the same price before covid, and the service is just horrible.

  23. United is cheap cheap cheap. They don’t believe bad food will drive away business. After all these mergers, we know you really don’t have a choice in airlines…. So I hope you’re not hungry.

  24. United is cheap cheap cheap. They don’t believe bad food will drive away business.

    No, bad food won’t drive away business, which makes posts like these peculiar exercises of travel blogosphere.

    I board an airplane to get from point A and point B, hopefully in relative comfort, and do not expect to get a gourmet restaurant experience along the way. If I want a decent meal, I will make sure to have it before boarding. Do you know that altitude makes food taste bland? 😉

    In fact, I am not at all sure that UA business-class meals are that different from those AA or DL. Just do the following and see what I am talking about. Do these Google searches in three different browser tabs, side-by-side, so that you can compare the output by going back and forth:

    — United Airlines business class meals
    — American Airlines business class meals
    — Delta Air Lines business class meals

    At the top the page, click “images” to display photos of meals that have been served in the business class of each of the US Big Three airlines and decide for yourself. The test is pseudo scientific because the photos are from countless sources (blogs, news media, airline ads), including from real people, and show meals that were hated or liked or for no reason other than to show friends and family on social media. You are the judge, let us know what you think…

  25. @DCS sorry you’re just wrong. American’s business class meals are better than United’s. I never thought I’d say that! And bad food will cause passengers to avoid an airline where they have a reasonable option, absolutely.

  26. @Gary — There you go again, making claims that must be right simply because you, the “thought leader”, make them. There is no objective evidence whatsoever because it does not exist:

    “American’s business class meals are better than United’s.” What’s your evidence? Whose palate gets to decide for other travelers out there what is “good” or “bad” food? To someone who had not had much to eat prior to boarding a plane and is famished, a UA business-class meal might taste like a gourmet chef’s!

    “And bad food will cause passengers to avoid an airline where they have a reasonable option, absolutely.” What’s your evidence and, again, why do you get to decide what’s “bad food” for others?

    I suggested a simple test that counters your occasional photo of an awfully looking meal that accompanies your claims, as if a single photo were definitive proof. Take the test…

  27. @DCS – I love your comments. You’ll gaslight for Hilton and United, no matter what. I’ve eaten meals with both airlines. I’ve watched the commentary and seen the photos of both from hundreds of travelers. It’s not at all controversial that American has been doing a better job with catering than United in international business class, which of course is not a huge endorsement of American’s meals.

    Here’s my suggestion, you’ve got your airline and your hotel chain, try becoming a Hertz fan and explain away the false arrests!

  28. @Gary — You love my comments, and I love your posts…for the same reason you seem to like my comments. There is big difference, however: I invariably back my “gaslighting” with objective evidence, not with claims that something right because I say so, which is usually the extent of your “evidence”, apparent even in what you just posted:

    I’ve eaten meals with both airlines. I’ve watched the commentary and seen the photos of both from hundreds of travelers. It’s not at all controversial that American has been doing a better job with catering than United in international business class, which of course is not a huge endorsement of American’s meals.

    I am sure you have eaten gazillion meals with both airlines (though more on AA than UA, as I have many more on UA than on AA, so it’s a draw) and seen lots photos [lots of which anyone can see with a simple Google search], but to go from there to “it’s not at all controversial that American has been doing a better job with catering than United in international business class” requires a leap of faith because it is about… taste! It’s like, how can it be controversial if the “thought leader” says it’s not? The problem: there is zero objective evidence to support the claim.

    I will pass on the Hertz brouhaha. I tend to void commenting on topics that I do not care or know much about….

  29. LOL

    It’s not at all controversial that American has been doing a better job with catering than United…

    Yeah, right. Just like is not at all controversial that the Hyatt point or the starpoint [R.I.P.] is/was the single most valuable point currency in hotel loyalty…?

    Gotta go.

  30. BTW, before is close the chapter on this mindless “debate”, I would like to the “gaslight for UA” again by providing the science on the taste of food at high altitude,which I alluded to in a comment upthread (the piece is relatively short so I am posting the whole thing)

    b>One reason airline food is so bad? Your own tastebuds
    By Jordan Gaines, NBC News

    When’s the last time you enjoyed your in-flight meal? Your answer is probably “never.” And with the first weekend in August being one of the busiest times of year to fly, flight attendants are likely bracing themselves for a new onslaught of complaints about flavorless airline grub.

    But is in-flight food really so bad, or is our perception of it just a little off? As it turns out, there’s a scientific reason why food is less savory at 30,000 feet.

    Even before takeoff, cabin humidity decreases to about 12 percent. Once at altitude, the combination of the dry air and pressure change reduces our taste bud sensitivity. In fact, our perception of saltiness and sweetness drops by around 30 percent at high altitude, according to a 2010 study by the German airline Lufthansa. If you ate airline food at sea level, you might be surprised by how liberally the chefs have actually spiced it.

    But high altitudes’ impact on our taste buds is just part of the bland in-flight food story. Another puzzle piece has to do with the fact that “flavor” is, in fact, a combination of both taste and smell.

    “When you put something in your mouth, the vapors from this pass through the nasopharynx to reach the olfactory receptors high in the nose,” explains Dr. Tom Finger, professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-director of the Rocky Mountain Taste and Smell Center.

    In addition to reduced taste bud sensitivity, cabin pressurization causes our mucus membranes to swell, blocking this pathway (remember the last stuffy nose you had and how difficult it was to enjoy your chicken noodle soup?). Cabin pressure also decreases the volatility of odor molecules, or their ability to vaporize and enter the nose.

    Dry air doesn’t help our sense of smell, either. Typically, odorants are transported to olfactory receptors in the nose via the mucus lining. When the nasal cavity is dried out, the efficiency at which odorants are detected by the brain is reduced. When you “lose the olfactory component,” explains Finger, “you lose much of the flavor component of food.”

    Interestingly, a 2011 study published in the journal “Food Quality and Preference” suggests an alternative hypothesis behind the blandness of airplane food: the loud, constant hum of the aircraft engine.

    During the experiment, 48 participants listened to either silence or white noise with headphones while snacking on sweet and salty foods. They were asked to rate the intensity of the flavors and several other characteristics.

    With background noise, food was rated as less salty and less sweet than in silence. White noise, however, increased the perceived crunchiness. Andy Woods and colleagues at the University of Manchester posit that noise distracts eaters, making it difficult to concentrate on the taste and properties of their food.

    Is there a way to combat all of these sensory changes and actually enjoy some munchies while miles in the air? Not really, although some airlines are working to create more palatable in-flight products, such as British Airways’ new teabag specifically developed for use at 35,000 feet.

    Just go in prepared with the knowledge that your food might not be so delicious for a couple hours. Or bring your own food like the majority of travelers are doing these days. But no matter how you prefer to snack on-board — and no matter how delicious the snack — it’ll probably still taste a bit like cardboard.

    Amen! When certain claims are recycled, and they will be, please remember the preceding, well, “grain of salt.”

  31. Ouch! Botched that as I usually do from multitasking: “BTW, before I close the chapter on this mindless “debate”, I would like to “gaslight for UA…etc…”

  32. 2 words: “corruption and kickbacks”. Just like prison and defense contracts. Everyone is getting their pockets lined.

    A set amount of $$ is set aside for each passenger for a Business Class meal but only a small percentage of that is really spent.

    Catering Directors in the airline industry are not hired for competence, education or experience. It’s back slapping nepotism. Gifting from vendors and suppliers are extremely common. No one cares about ethics and conduct.

    Why not have 5 star hotels supply gourmet lunch bags for Business customers or hire competent leadership from a cruise line? Proven experience with feeding quality products to thousands of customers at once?

    Does anyone truly believe that Scott Kirby and his family travel on UA? Not in a million years! NetJets for them. They order exactly what they want, whenever they want.

  33. I just flew SFO>EWR in J, and the food, while exactly as mediocre as you might expect, was totally fine. Nothing gross or anything. This is usually the case when I fly that route. It’s airplane food, but it’s far from the worst airplane food I’ve ever had.

    I haven’t flown AA transcon as much but I remember the food being actually almost good when I have.

  34. I love when people say “I flew Polaris” as though it’s some premium product. Such dumb people who succumb to poor marketing. You flew business class on United. Which is absolute trash.

  35. @Brian — “You flew business class on United. Which is absolute trash.”

    But can any airline(s) based in USA even remotely approach the quality of services offered by those from Asia, Middle East, or Europe?

  36. I’ve worked for the airline (CO) since 1998. People complained on my first day and practically ever since. Lately though, the plates come back empty and people, if dissatisfied, don’t voice it to me. I have a very open countenance and people easily talk to me. I’m sure if there was a problem they would tell me.

    That said, every seat on every plane is full. My coworkers all fly WN, NK and B6 to commute to work because they have seats available and UA never does. That says something.

  37. @DCS,

    The shear number of comments here in this column of posts are incontrovertible objective evidence that suggests you are 100% incorrect and should simply accept that the food on UA is subpar and unacceptable. The vast majority of people dislike it, the end. Gary Leff is doing everyone a favor by giving them a voice.

  38. United food is so bad they’ve lost all of my business after being a 1K customer for years. The competition isn’t great but United is so bad it makes their meals seem fantastic. They can’t even do simple things right like brining back snack baskets in First. I know many others who are leaving United behind as well.

  39. Flew recently Newark Dubai r/t in Polaris business. Meals were similar to those served in economy on other carriers. They were also pretty bad in both quality and taste . Never again , will go back to Emirates on that route, very big difference , same price!

  40. Just flew United Polaris Business class this past week from Frankfurt to SFO. While stowing my luggage a flight attendant asked what I wanted for my entree. Realizing I better choose to get my first choice, I said I will take the chicken. His reply was no, all out. I settled for my second choice – the ravioli. The menu for the pre-landing meal was a choice of hamburger or couscous. During meal service, I wasn’t even asked for my selection and a hamburger was placed in front of me. I stated that I did not eat meat and preferred the couscous and was told, “Sorry, all out.” Two meals and no preferred selection!!! Noticing my dismay, the flight attendant miraculously delivered the couscous two minutes later. It, like the ravioli, was inedible. I left a scathing review when prompted to evaluate my experience. Needless to say, I gave a horrible review and advised them to take a tip from Jet Blue Mint – which delivers one of the freshest, best tasting meals I’ve ever had on an airline. I agree with one of the previous comments challenging a United executive to sit eat one of their crappy meals. Not only was the food inedible, but it looked disgusting. Also, due to fewer flight attendants the attentiveness of service is non-existent. Saw flight attendants only during the two meal services of the 11+ hour flight.

  41. We just flew United Business Class to and from Switzerland to the USA and the food was basically inedible. The worst was probably breakfast on the flight over where there was something that was described as an omelette swimming in this disgusting gravy. Not far behind was the main meal returning from Switzerland where I thought I would be safest ordering the tortellini. The tortellini was barely edible but the mushroom and something resembling broccoli stems were so horrific that they couldn’t be eaten. I have no idea what the 3 shrimp in a salad were on top of but I wasn’t going to stick my fork into it. For $10,000 for my husband and I to travel in Polaris, I would think that we could at least get food equivalent to British Air. I don’t expect food of the quality of Turkish Air – I just want to be able to eat it.

  42. Yesterday I took a Lufthansa flight from Chicago to Frankfurt that unfortunately turned out to be a United flight from Chicago to Frankfurt. I work overseas and am a veteran world traveler and have taken roughly 270 flights in my life, most of them international.

    I’m sure many travelers are like me–after the ordeal of getting to the airport and the chaotic, stressful boarding process and finally take off (an hour late in my case), you look forward to a hot meal. But what I was officered on United was the worst food I have ever seen on an international flight–a choice between a cheeseburger or a vegetarian pasta dish. If I’d wanted a cheeseburger, I could have gotten a much better one at the airport before boarding, so I got the vegetarian pasta, and it was awful–Chinese noodles nixed with random piece of vegetable without any kind of sauce. I took a few bites and decided it was better to go hungry. Is that really the best United can do?

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