United Will Test Faster Meal Service on Washington Dulles Late Night Europe Flights in April

Starting Monday, April 1 United will be conducting a test for one month for late night departures from Washington Dulles. Transatlantic flights departing after 10 p.m. will see a modified meal service in business class that shortens the service to allow for longer sleep. Flights like Washington Dulles – London Heathrow, Frankfurt, and Dublin are scheduled for between just 7 and 8 hours gate-to-gate.

Appetizers and salad will be served alongside the entrée, rather than being coursed, with dessert to follow separately. In addition to reduce noise during the dessert service desserts will be plated in the galley and delivered to customers rather than using the dessert cart. There’s no change to the food being offered, either in terms of choices or quantity, and no changes to the desserts either (although I’d guess that dessert consumption will go down without the desserts right in front of customers tempting them).

I actually think this would be a good move if United’s Polaris lounge at Washington Dulles were open. For short transatlantic flights leaving late — where flight time may be similar to a flight to the West Coast — many passengers really do just want to go to sleep. I know I do.

Several airlines, most notably British Airways, have long offered ‘pre-flight dining’ for exactly this reason. Have your dinner in the lounge, go right to sleep once on board. And to facilitate sleep you want the overall service to be completed as quickly as possible so there’s less clanging, and the lights can go out.

Unfortunately there’s no Polaris lounge at Washington Dulles yet, though United says one will open later this year. I asked the airline why they’re not testing this at Newark, where customers can easily have their meal in the lounge before departure – guessing it was that Newark flights are higher yielding so a test could be higher risk – and was told there’s “a lot going on in Newark” and that “Dulles was selected because..we hear from customers on late night flights in various hubs, and heard quite a bit from customers at Dulles” wanting to go right to sleep.

Newark Polaris Lounge Dining Room

The airline said they’d be sending an email to customers letting them know to expect this change for April. There’s no timeline yet on when they’ll make a decision about whether to keep this change going forward, whether they’ll roll it out to other hubs beyond the East Coast, or whether it makes sense for flights leaving earlier than 10 p.m. United says that if they receive negative feedback on the test than it won’t expand.

No doubt this will make service flow easier on these flights now that there’s one fewer flight attendant working in business class and entrées are being delivered to the aircraft pre-plated.

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. A great change! When I select these later departures (no my preferred time to leave for European flights), I prefer to eat in the airport and get as much sleep as possible on that plane. No one wants to eat a meal on a flight that late.

  2. Excellent move that I hope expands. People don’t buy J tickets for a mediocre meal at 11pm, they do it so that they can sleep.

  3. If they want faster, they could be inspired by the FAs (ex-Continental) in Econ on SF0-SIN route.
    Departure- No snack and beverage service ahead of meal. They just jump to beverage and meal and ice cream cups. Clear trays, no 2nd bev service.
    Pre Arrival- One beverage service with meal, clear trays.

    Crews (UA) on other Asian routes said it’s the Continental FAs minimizing their work time and extending breaks.

  4. Not a great idea – eating dinner when it’s 4 AM in London. Better to skip it and just have a light breakfast before arrival.

  5. Here’s an idea. Make the meal service on flights after 9 p.m. by request only, and instead give all business-class vouchers a $50 meal voucher for any airport restaurant. Then again, there aren’t many great restaurants at Dulles, but still. I just want to sleep on these flights, which sometimes are only 6 or 6 1/2 hours.

  6. It doesn’t matter for seasoned travelers, all those food or alcohol inside overnight flights are only for the newbie that will have horrible jetlag upon arrival.
    The golden rules of traveling overseas to minimize jetlag are as follow:
    – Do not eat any food, alcohol or caffeinated beverage for 16 hours before your first meal upon arrival.
    – Sleep according to destination night time.
    What does that mean is that the last food, alcohol or soda you should have is around lunchtime the day of departure. No food or alcohol at the airport or on the plane, only water during traveling.

    I travel all the time to Europe and those rules are the only thing that really works to avoid jetlag.

  7. I wonder when an airline will figure out how to allow take off and landing in fully flat position. That’s easily worth 90 minutes additional sleeping time, and that makes a lot of difference on a 6-7 hour flight.

  8. Too bad! I’m scheduled for UA 924 IAD -> LHR this Sunday night (10pm departure). Will give a report if by chance I get the “early” service.

    I personally think this is a great idea for United and honestly is something they should do on all flights from 5pm on, especially from Dulles which has terrible food options on that concourse compared to other locations (ORD, SFO, IAH, and EWR) which have Polaris lounges.

    The United lounges in Dulles have bare bones food options and I hate trekking to A/B gates for the better lounges.

  9. @Michel – Everyone’s body is different when it comes to jet lag. Your method wouldn’t work/isn’t necessary for me.

    I travel all the time to Europe and Asia, and I have no need to avoid food or caffeinated beverages, including on board the plane. I rarely drink alcohol on planes ever, so that’s not an issue. My “trick” is to power through the first day upon arrival and get as much sun as I can, going to sleep as early as possible that first night.

    This has worked for me for 30 years of international travel.

  10. I have a routine for night flights that works well for me (I just did it DFW-LHR on Monday). I eat dinner in the lounge. When I board the plane, I change into PJ’s while on the ground, and ask the FA to hold my meal. Then, as the plane is taking off, I put in the ear plugs, put on the sleep mask & lay the seat flat & I’m OUT!. I generally sleep anywhere from 2-1/2 hours to 6 hours before I wake up & have dinner then. (I once slept 9 hours straight on DFW-SYD!) No pills, no alcohol — just sleep.

  11. Yes, that’s what I prefer to do! Unfortunately it’s just hard to do at IAD. Just not many great food options, especially in the lounge. And honestly, I feel bad paying extra for dinner at the airport if work is springing for the extra $ for business class!

  12. This is a no brainer and should have been rolled out years ago. In fact if airline was really savvy it would eliminate meal service at 10pm (who needs that) and instead offer better snacks in galley for the few that are hungry.

    In fact CIA and others recommend you fast for 12 hours so your stomach can adjust to the new time. So the better course would be to offer a better breakfast rather than increase jetlag for your customers.

  13. I’m on a lot of these flights that depart quite late and arrive quite early, and I can never understand why people want to eat the stuff they serve during those hours. If you get on a plane at 10:00 you should have already eaten dinner. I just want to go right to sleep, don’t care at all about food on redeyes and don’t want to be bothered by meal service. An area that airlines can easily cut back on without bothering the vast majority of passengers at all.

    It’s no less strange to me that passengers arriving at 6:30 a.m. feel the need to wake up to eat breakfast. I would much rather get a few extra minutes of sleep and grab something when I land.

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