United Confirms Cuts to Meal Service on Flights Under 4 Hours

Wednesday United’s website indicated they were eliminating full meals on flights under 4 hours outside of dinner time. I reached out to United and they confirmed the change. Yesterday the website showed meals at 3 hours. Now that’s gone again. What’s going on?

When United was looking for billions of dollars in cost savings, ironically called “Project Quality,” one of the places they went after was meal service. They even cut garlic bread and ketchup. However they broadened their meal service windows in February 2015, offering meals on more flights than their competitors.

It was pointed out to me yesterday that United had updated their website to say they had eliminated full meals on departures outside of the 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. dinner window on flights under four hours. Oddly United Express flights retained meals on three hour flights.

I reached out to United and here’s what they shared,

We offer customers a more simplified meal service on flights under 4 hours. It’s not considered a full meal service because it has a smaller serving portion of the starter, entree and dessert.

They further explained, “we really wanted to simplify the customer dining experience by being more cognizant of meal portion size and timing.”

This didn’t really resonate with me for two reasons:

  1. United’s lunch portions already entailed small portions
  2. Current United management had a history of cutting back on meal service when they were running American. In fact one of the things I pointed out that American’s customers should watch out for when that management team came over from US Airways was that US Airways first class customers were hungry.

I’ve recently written that United’s lunch service on flights just over 3 hours has been pretty good though with small portions to start with and that’s before this change to reduce portions.

Here’s the jambalaya at lunch this past fall:

And here’s the chicken with macaroni and cheese in December. It came with a delicious spicy sauce. The entree, again, was small.

So what does United’s food look like when the small entrees are reduced further?

Yet here’s what’s really strange. I asked United about this Wednesday and the next morning the meals page reverted back to show full meals on flights 3 hours and above — not the four hours it showed Wednsday. United didn’t respond when asked about this, but the website again changed to show no meals outside the 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. dinner window on flights less than 4 hours which is what it reflects now.

This looks like a major cut to me and comes after meals service cuts on United as recently as September.

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. That sucks. I was pretty close to leaving AA for UA a little while back but right at that time Scott Kirby moved over to UA and I thought I would hold off on that decision. Not that meals were the sole reason to move but if UA wants to race to the bottom with AA, I don’t know if switching is worth it.

  2. Love the foreign carriers in Europe that serve full course meals on flights of 2 hours–and filling snacks in coach, as well. Our legacy airlines need more competition here in the US.

  3. Scott Kirby strikes again. As long as he is around, United will always be the worst of the legacy carriers. The board should just fire him already so he can go run Spirit Airlines where he belongs.

  4. Josh Earnest likes to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders out for defending Tr*mp’s lies. Let’s see how honest he is as United’s newly named spokesperson.

  5. It amuses me how everyone complains about the quality of food when the airlines have it and everyone complains about the lack of meal service when they take it away. I just prepack a sandwich or snack (TSA safe) in my carryon and than I’m never disappointed at what I’m eating on board. Considering the quality of food I see being served these days, I don’t think I’m missing much whether they have meals or not.

  6. @bzv-Couldn’t agree more. On my one hour business class flight from MUC-VIE I was served a full breakfast. Eggs, full bowl of cereal, bread. fresh fruit, yogurt & juice. It was great and it was served on linen. Economy passengers had a meal box with yogurt, fruit, cereal, orange juice and a breakfast bar.

  7. Southwest cleaning up on legacy airlines domestic routes. Taking co troll of California and Hawaii routes now. Legacy are getting squeezed out slowly by their management decisions…going for short term profits for benefits of executives options compensation. Go unions insist on more pay from legacy airlines. Don’t let the legacy destroy their long term viability without getting your cut. squeeze em out if business like Air Italia. I used to dislike Southwest many years ago. Love em now.

  8. Why is anyone so invested in plane food? It’s bad in economy, period. More or less of it won’t change anything. As for foreign carriers – you’d have to compare those carriers on comparable flights of, say, 3 hours. Most of the food is appalling.

  9. @Bill and Co. – to be fair, the Euro biz class experience isn’t exactly something I aspire to. While I completely agree that the on-board food service operations of European carriers beat the legacy U.S. carriers hands down, keep in mind that you’re getting much less real estate (which is what really costs money on a plane) and generally, in my experience, paying more for this “business class” product than one would pay for F/J on a similar length U.S. domestic flight. So, if forced to make a decision between good meals and Euro seats and U.S. seats with bad meals, my legs and my back would compel me to choose the latter.

    Now, that being said, in this economy and with so many people buying cash F/J fares, I’d think that legacy U.S. carriers would be in a race to the top, upgrading their products and increasing prices, rather than the other way around. But that shows how little I know, apparently.

  10. This is the last straw for me. I am done with UA if they start eliminating my meal service.

  11. One is reminded of Alvy Singer in Annie Hall: “There’s an old joke: two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

    Cutbacks to service may be unfortunate, but perhaps Mr. Leff, along with most other Americans, could do with smaller portions.

  12. Haven’t been impressed with them since the killing of Continental. It’s a race between AA and UA to see who can reach the bottom the quickest. And when one does, the other digs that bottom a little deeper. UA is far far far off of my list. Pointless to fly them really.

  13. I can’t believe grown adults are complaining about food cooked days ahead of time, frozen, and reheated in an easy bake oven.

  14. Wow!!! It just keeps getting worse with United. I’m sitting here daydreaming of a way to say, we’ve had enough of United’s treatment of its Premier level customers; customers who have been loyal year after year, despite figuratively, being punched in the gut, kicked in the teeth, over and over again. Why? Because they have us over a barrel with their loyalty program. So returning to my daydream…several years ago on Christmas Day, a flight attendant went AWOL and could not be replaced on a US Air flight (then a United partner). The plane which would have been full left empty, costing the airline big bucks. The passengers were accommodated on other flights, put up at hotels, again costing the airline a lot of money…I digress. Back to my daydream. Wouldn’t it be great if one day, no one made reservations, nor flew anywhere on United, and Mr. Kirby lost precious revenue? Of course, Mr. Kirby would find a way to pass the lost revenue cost on to the customer, but a girl can dream, right?

  15. Let’s not forget Legacy European carriers don’t upgrade all of their Elites to First Class / business class on European flights so the people sitting up there actually pay for it… I still can’t believe Lufthansa Swiss and Turkish are able to serve a full course meal on a 45-minute flight. Something US carriers should seriously look at… I’ve seen them literally take half an hour just to set up the drink cart on a domestic US flight

  16. I have to respond to Ric’s comment. I am a lowly Platinum “Elite”, 1.5 million miler, having been 1K on and off in the past. I don’t know about you, but I rarely get free upgrades, so I frequently pay out of my personal pocket for my upgrades. I work for a not-for-profit, not a multi-million dollar corporation, so I am sensitive about wanting some source of food in compensation for what I have paid to upgrade. The international carriers do a fabulous job of serving a full meal in a short timeframe. We in the US have just gotten used to the mediocrity of our domestic airlines, because we have no choice.

  17. I presume this is F service as I haven’t seen a full meal in economy for years. If so then how many people does it really affect? A few GS at hubs who actually get upgraded?
    The bigger issue is sufficient food for purchase in economy and the horrid menu options.

  18. Meals are cut little by little in China, HK & Macao too. But hot meals are still served, usually with 2 choices: noodle or rice, chicken or beef.

    Young flight attendants are still the same as far as I can tell, in many Asian flights, LOL

  19. From this I take it United will restore meal service on ghe zeven hour GUM-HNL flight.

    Who am I kidding…of course they won’t restore it…

  20. In economy I have zero expectation. Upfront, I want to be fed and watered, and I look carefully at the first class seats I choose with that in mind.

    At a time where United needs to claw back market share, and has a weakened competitor in AA, I don’t get this strategy, at all. The food doesn’t cost THAT much, margins on food in the restaurant business are ginourmous. In fact, its probably the most cost-efficient differentiator they have. Cheaper than giving me another couple inches of pitch!

    Man if I could fly B6 everywhere out of LAX, I surely would.

  21. “I reached out to United and here’s what they shared,”

    What kind of mumbo-jumbo bu**sh** is this? Why don’t you use standard business English instead of this new-age college blah-blah? You sound like an idiot, like all the others who write this way.

    “I asked United and here is what they said.” Clear, concise, and correct.

  22. @CW- Again I agree 100% with your assessment of real estate in Euro Biz. However, I use UA points and multi-city iteneraries during booking in Biz class which allows me to choose biz class with no additional points on my intra-Europe connection. Last year I booked BOS-KRK-VIE-BOS. My KRK-VIE flight was on a Q400 puddle jumper. I had the 2 seats on the left side of the aircraft and my wife had the 2 seats on the right. Again, not a lengthy flight but full breakfast was served and it was good.
    If forced to pay and choose Biz vs Economy, economy would win out everytime for me.

  23. I haven’t flown economy for years but I hear they charge for meals. So I’m assuming that these meals being changed from 3-4 hours are first class?

    I’ve flown UA since the merger and never really took to their meals. In the past few months I’ve seen lobster macaroni (almost bit into it and I’m allergic to shellfish) and the jambalaya dish, etc. The breakfasts are awful and that used to be my favorite. Worse, the dessert is always a single cookie. What happened to cheesecake, etc?

    I’ve been paying for my 1st Class ticket, not buy ups or miles. And bc I fly from DTW, I have to connect in IAH or ORD. That usually brings my 2nd flight in at 3.5 hours or so. In fact MOST of my flights are just a smidge less than 4 hours. I fly United Express on 2 of 4 legs so I get to pick a snack out of the basket.

    I’ve been considering Delta for years, but didn’t want to lose my status. I’ll make notes from now on about how many meals I don’t receive. UA is declining. The IFE is only good on 777 flights or the few 739s with DTV. I have to consider starting over if they can’t even serve lunch on flights less than 4 hours. After the year UA had, you’d think they’d be pushing it up a notch, not taking more away.

  24. And they wonder (with envy) why DL enjoys such a revenue premium. Amenities and operational reliability DO matter to premium class passengers .

  25. I think this meals cutback and the awful decision to jam OTG food outlets into terminals are not coincidental.
    Ripping out moving walkways to triple up favored food vendors reflects a really poor treatment for customers… I see little value in maintaining Platinum status servicewise, fortunately i have a COPA alternative for many trips.

  26. To be fair – look at the cuts Delta has made – cuts on the normal domestic (lots of turkey ‘sandwiches’). And now Delta ONE ‘premium’ transcon is a one tray meal with smaller portions.

  27. Yes, in coach they charge $10 for a box of snacks. Little plastic packs of crackers and cheese, nuts, beef jerky, cookies and the like. Although they sometimes claim they have actual meals (think turkey sandwich, full stop), they are always out when a customer requests them.

  28. Another in a series of reasons why to avoid United, and for that matter, non essential air travel. As a retired former executive who traveled the world and this great country I can remember a time when passengers were treated as welcome and appreciated customers. No longer. We’re flying Greyhound these days. And I never liked to ride the bus. Going forward, include me out.

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