United Business Class Wine Consumption Up 300%, Airline Facing Shortage

Via the indispensable @BrianSumers, United is facing a wine shortage in international business class. Here’s their internal note to flight attendants:

While United is facing delays even off their already slow schedule rolling out new Polaris business class seats (they’re even mothballing brand new 777s waiting for seats), they launched their new Polaris branded soft product back in December.

That means better blankets and pillows in business class, a better meal service, and new wines including encouraging customers to try them all with small tasting flights.

These aren’t super premium wines — La Crema is what you’d expect, though I found the inexpensive Colby Red surprisingly drinkable on my pre-inaugural test flight for the new seats back in February.

Of course if consumption is up 300% over expectation, that means wine cost is up too. One concern would be — if customers like what United is offering too much — that alone could be reason for cutting back and looking for cheaper options.

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. United’s MO is to cut where consumption exceeds forecast demand… see the scrapped plans to roll out hot casserole service at United Clubs (like currently on offer at ORD) after demand far exceeded estimates… and budget.

    Expect an imminent return to the pre-Polaris bargain basement…

  2. LOL at La Crema and Columbia Crest. Sure it’s better than the plonk they’ve been serving, but my wine friends would not be happy!!

  3. I suspect a large part of the “consumption” increase are half full bottles being poured out as the wine flight basically means opening all variants.

    Before making any quick decisions to address this UA should gather some data and see if premium cabin bookings are improving after the roll out of the new soft product and assess the impact of this positive change. The numbers might be good enough that eliminating small elements can influence customer perception of the Polaris product (ugh they eliminated the wine flights that I enjoyed last time – typical United this product has been watered down when it is just ONE rollback).

  4. These wines are not at all premium. This is why the middle eastern carriers are beating the US carriers every time. Shame on United. They are truly clueless….

  5. The fact that they come out first with a wine cart (rather than a beverage cart w/ hard liquor etc) is part of the problem. It’s just easier to order the wine rather than a cocktail or something else. I would actually love it if they changed the way they do beverage service rather than pushing the wine so much.

  6. While the service flow dictates the wine cart comes out first, passengers may also order any drink they wish to. The galley FA makes and delivers secondary orders, so this isn’t the primary problem. One person correctly mentioned that once bottles are opened, they have to be dumped. The airline attempted to address this by amending the service so that FA’s open bottles once a particular wine has been ordered. This has mixed success, however, with the wine tasting flights, many folks do want to try all 3 wines (or sometimes all 6). The 2nd quarter Polaris wine rotation includes 2 options that are very popular on some routes, and genuinely run out due to consumption. (Having personally tasted wines from both rotations, the 2nd rotation is significantly improved).
    Personally I think the new soft product is a little mismatched on the current seats, however experiencing it on the 777-300ER’s new seats (which will roll out soon on the 767-300’s and other retrofits), many elements of the service make lot more sense and it’s been next to impossible to score upgrades on the HKG route (using system-wides etc).

  7. There’s no freakin’ way UA’s customers are saying “Wow, this wine is now so much better. I’ll drink 3x as much.”

    At most, better wine might boost consumption 50%. I’m a mild wine snob, and I certainly wouldn’t drink more than 50% more if the wine went from, say, $10/bottle wine to $25/bottle wine.

    As others have said, if wine “consumption” was gone up 300%, it’s obviously a result of how the wine is being opened and/or served.

  8. Consumption isn’t up 300% – see the quoted message. Just higher than forecast.

  9. The main issue is that flight attendants are often opening too many bottles, like 4 bottles, one for each cart in each aisle in each zone, and if no one drinks the wine, the entire bottle gets dumped. Bottles should only be opened if ordered

  10. When they run out of business class wine, United Airlines can always use their reserve of blue juice stored in the loo. Nobody should be able to taste the difference.

  11. Agree with Bill, not Eugene…
    Wine cart and wine refills came thru multiple times, only got one mixed drink and nary a refill… yes I asked. I think they are pushing the wine and if ppl take both red and white flights w full glasses, that’s a lot of wine!

  12. The problem is the forecast not the consumption. While wine consumption is up, other liquor consumption must be down or UA passengers are disembarking three times as sloshed. Total costs may be flat or not increasing in a way that should compel UA to look for cheaper options. Of course airlines need no excuse to do that.

  13. There’s a reason AA quickly eliminated the wine tasting in IFS F that came online in early 2013.

    Guess the folks up at Willis are running their calculators and realized encouraging people to consume more (marginal at best) wine isn’t smart and much of it likely gets tossed.

  14. 300% more than they FORECASTED!!! They probably forecasted nobody would drink these cheap wines but there are always some heroes out there. These are not premium wines and I would not get alcohol in my blood from these.

  15. Again, this is 300% more than projected. Not 300% more total wine consumption.

    I’m predicting they reduce the we one quality in their next buy.

  16. United knew this internal email would become public so they basically decided to blame their customers for being whino’s instead of blaming themselves for being cheap and not ordering enough wine. Next they’ll blame their customers for the delay in adding their new Polaris seats because it takes too long for people to de-plane so they don’t have enough time to add the new seats. Excuse after excuse from these people.

  17. I’m with Charles. The ability to get a refill on a cocktail is quite frustrating. Yeah they will go make you one but they are much more eager to give you a glass of wine (and refill it).

  18. … this wine thing has become a major challenge for United. Besides the seat.

    During a flight a few weeks ago from EWR to SFO (booking code DVFKFG), the flight attendant had to grab Malbec wine in small bottles from economy class because the only choice there was in BusinessFirst was a Pinot, a grape we do not like.

    Today, SFO to FRA, upper deck on a 747-400, the choice in the menu features a very nice variety. However, that was only on paper … the only available white wine was a Riesling, and the only two reds were a French and a Greek wine. The Cabernet on the menu – which would have been our definite favorite – was not available.

    Very frustrating!

  19. Yes it is frustrating when the FAs have absolutely no clue as to what wine they have on board other than ‘red’ or ‘white’, as if that’s the only difference. Didn’t see any La Crema chard on our flight last week EZE-IAH. Would have liked to as it is a step up from the usual mystery bottles they serve.

  20. This smells to me hot on the heels of delayed 777 aircraft due to polaris seats not being available. Cuuld the real reasons be lack of $? Lack of paying bills? I’ll be cautious going forward with United bookings.

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