United’s Big New Investment in Inflight Meals — Including Lobster!

Yesterday I noted that American is ramping up its investment in onboard cookies.

Implicit is an acceptance that soft product matters, even if the most important things are, in order:

  1. Safety
  2. Schedule
  3. Seat

Premium cabins need some minimum standard meal, and minimum standard of attentive service.

Onboard entertainment is believed to matter, which is why airlines continue to either install heavy expensive equipment or hand out tablets. Most frequent flyers I talk to say that it continues to matter, though I don’t understand it myself, I’d rather take control of my own entertainment and download shows in advance to my personal devices.

I’d take onboard internet over entertainment, even when the internet won’t stream video, every day.

On long flights, seat power matters.

On my piece on cookies, I noted that United is bringing back bread plates in domestic first class.

United’s not a free spending airline, last summer they were talking $2 billion in cost cuts and getting as granular as buying cheaper nuts and eliminating garlic bread and ketchup from certain flights.

But they’re seeing the importance of passenger experience, and as the economy improves there are more premium customers to compete for.

Matthew Klint offers a good synopsis of several improvements that United announced, some of which go into effect today.

  • New menus including a newly-redesigned breakfast menu
  • Examples include french toast, steel-cut oatmeal, and a new southwestern skillet for breakfast plus lobster macaroni and cheese for lunch
  • More menu choices including three choices on longer mid-con flights and sorbet or gelato for dessert
  • Expanded meal hours on mid-con and transcon flights
  • Flights departing before 9:01p will have full meal service (previously it was 6:59p)
  • Multi-course meal service on transcon and Hawaiian flights
  • Three meal choices, mid-flight refreshment, pre-arrival snack
  • Starting in March 2015, meal service on regional jets flights over 800 miles, served on chinaware
  • Enhanced meals in long-haul economy class coming later in the year
  • See Matthew’s post for the full announcement from United. I’m not impressed by ‘Lobster Macaroni and Cheese’ – the Westin near my office offers that as an evening bar snack special for $5, and I’m confident that’ll be better than what United is able to replicate in the air. Clearly they’re buying the ability to say ‘lobster’ in their meals.

    We’re not talking about any of these, of course:

      Lobster thermidor, Singapore business class, Singapore – Bali (1037 miles)

      Lobster Pad Thai, Thai Airways first class, Bangkok – Beijing (2056 miles)

      Lobster thermidor, Singapore first class, Tokyo – Singapore (3324 miles)

    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. There’s a glut of lobster on the market so for UA this is a cheap way of hyping up the new menu offerings. Having just flown TG F and had a couple of their lobster offerings, I was extremely disappointed by the dry, cardboard like substance that airline passed off as that pink crustacean!
      However, after some of the atrocious slabs of protein I’ve been offered on UA, suppose any change will be for the better. Of course, none of this would be done if revenue F (or at least Yup) was not solidifying and CPUs diminishing.

    2. There isn’t a glut of Atlantic lobster on the market, at least not compared to last year. Although I suppose they never specified what kind of lobster it’d be Doing things like lobster mac and cheese is fairly cheap, though – the price of lobster shouldn’t really factor much. For one, there’s very little lobster in it, and what is present is probably going to be of the processed/canned variety (or frozen, if you’re lucky). The claw/leg meat that would go into something like this isn’t particularly expensive anyway.

      As Gary put it, they’re buying the right to say they serve lobster. In my opinion, United will serve you stiffs if they can get away with it 🙂

    3. Just so I have this straight, American changing their cookie to something that you hope will be as good as what they took away before is a big bodacious deal and portends that they are listening, but United revamping and improving pretty much every aspect of their meal service is just spin?

    4. As for lobster mac and cheese – what an excellent choice for UA – it is a product associated with a premium item, yet truly fits the bill for something which can be prepared mostly at 0 feet, but finished off in the convection oven. Given the limitations of the galley, and inspired idea.

      Ditto for steel cut oatmeal, but not to the same extent.

      And, yes, dinner service on later flights is due, especially to the extent that pax may be connecting without time to eat. I recall being a bit put out on my 8:00 pm ANC-EWR last summer and having no dinner service.

      And I will be interested to see what enhanced long haul economy service really is. I’d just counsel that pax recall the challenges to feeding 300 people efficiently at 30,000 feet. I would hope there would be some investment in quality ingredients, but consistent recollection that the labor involved in serving at 30,000 feet is in terribly short supply.

      The proof will come when the product is known and, more importantly, if there is a marked increase in quality, whether the market rewards United for it.

    5. As an aside, the changes DO NOT go into effect today. They go into effect on 2/1/15 and the updates were published to United.com starting 1/23/15. The press release stated this.

    6. And yet despite ramping up on food United still won’t bring back meal service on the 8 hour HNL-GUM leg. What makes this even more appalling is the fact that United does do meal service on its five hour HNL-MAJ leg

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