Backlash: United Drops Plan To Ax Hot Meals On International Flights

United Airlines said it would listen to feedback from customers about its proposed plan to ax hot meals for coach passengers on international flights… and it did. The company has decided not to go ahead with the plan. Reader Jason forwarded us the following email from Graham Atkinson, United’s Chief Customer Officer.


Thank you for your direct, candid feedback on the test we had planned to launch in the fourth quarter for food choices on some of our flights. We heard you and have decided not to move forward with the test of offering customers buy-on-board options in United Economy on certain trans-Atlantic flights. We will continue to offer complimentary hot meals on those flights.

The response from you and many of our corporate customers, even before we launched the test, told us what we would have undoubtedly learned had we proceeded – you value our hot meal service in economy class for international flights.

In this environment, where higher costs driven by volatile fuel prices are now the norm, we must continue to tailor products and services so that we provide you with choices and competitive fares. As such, we will continue to be proactive in testing new ideas.

On October 1, we will proceed with the test of new, complimentary options for United Business customers on three-cabin aircraft used for domestic routes, which represents 16 daily flights. Customers on these flights will receive complimentary fresh sandwiches, salads, breakfast, snack boxes or snacks, depending on the length of flight and time of departure. They will also continue to enjoy complimentary beverages, including beer, wine and cocktails. We will evaluate the results and determine next steps by the end of the year.

It’s also important to note that full meals will still be served on our p.s. transcontinental flights.

Thank you again for your feedback. We will continue to listen and make changes that enable us in this environment to provide you with the choices you value.


Graham Atkinson
Chief Customer Officer

The $9 sandwich plan is still in effect domestically, but at least you won’t be starving on a transatlantic flight. If you’d like to let Graham know what you think of this move, here’s some contact information for you.

(Photo: SoCalMetro )


Edit Your Comment

  1. picardia says:

    A rare moment of sanity from a major airline! How long can it last?

    • Tallanvor says:

      @picardia: Not last. They’ll wait until this dies down a bit and then try it again later.

    • stang says:

      @picardia: That was actualy a lot quicker decision that I figured. I was waiting for the first diabetic to have an insuline emergency or lapse into a diabetic coma before they changed their minds…. of course, they would have to change the passenger for any drinks or food necesary to avert any such emergency while in air or on the tarmac.

  2. Hedgy2136 says:

    As much as they would like people to believe it, the meals (or anything else you can manage to wrangle out of them) are not complimentary.

    This is kind of like ythe government saying it’s only a penny when they push a 1% sales tax increase on you.

  3. DirectAnon says:

    I was planning a transatlantic flight on december and the cheapest option was United, unfortunately, the connection was at IAD so I would be stuck in the new meal-less flight. American was some bucks more and if the 2 airlines treat cattle class like cr*p, at least AA still had meals. I booked and payed my ticket between the announcement and today; I wonder how many people made similar adjustments to their plans. Worst thing was, the price difference was something like 20 bucks (what it would’ve costed me to buy my own meal?) But still I’d like to know how many more believe there should be a minimun decent service when you travel by air and are willing to spend some more for it.

  4. ukthom says:

    AX = AXE

    Spelling Nazi has struck!

    • Consumerist-Moderator-Roz says:

      @ukthom: Please don’t post spelling/grammar nitpicks in comments. Email the editor. Adding lots of extra space to the comment especially just detracts from the substantive conversation about the article.

  5. kern2000 says:

    I have to ask, does it really require a survey of any sort to figure this out?

    All this cost-savings by the Airlines are caused by us consumers, though. We need to realize that.
    We all feel the pain from high gas prices, and we can sympathize when Airlines come to us and say, “We are increasing ticket prices due to increasing gas prices.”

    The only drawback to that is, we as consumers will just go and buy the cheapest tickets available.
    Airlines can’t all agree to raise prices either…

    Corporations really do serve the consumers. If only ALL consumers made more educated choices in every venue, we probably wouldn’t even need The Consumerist…

  6. Mr. Guy says:

    if getting a chicken salad wrap versus a plate of spaghetti bolognese saves me $10 on a transatlantic flight, i’m all for it. i don’t fly for the food. they could give me soylent green for all i care, just as long as its free, don’t starve, and i get where i want to go in the end.

  7. sjaguar says:

    I flew to Israel a few years ago. I was happy that I flew on British Airways. To date, they have been the best airline that I’ve flown with. The meals I was served were significantly better than on other airlines.

    I pretty indifferent about the type of food I eat. My diabetic wife, on the other hand, is very picky. We were greatly disappointed when we were notified of the lack of meal service (as we were standing in line to board). I had previously confirmed that they would be offering meal services. We had to run to the nearest fast food joint, just so she would have enough food for the flight.

    I wouldn’t mind paying more for meals. At the same token, I would like a discount if I choose to not eat the meals.

  8. BrianDaBrain says:

    I give it a few months, at most, before they throw this inane idea on the plate again. It’s obviously a bad, bad idea – the sheer amount of feedback they must have received to decide not to go with something that (ideally) would make them more money must have been jaw-dropping.

    For the record, I’d like to find the person that suggested the outrageous amount of $9 for a sandwich and punch said person in the face. Ok, my violent moment has passed. Still, flying is beginning to be an exercise in sadistic price gouging. When will it end?

    Oh, wait, probably never.

    Kudos to United for listening to their customers (for now).

    • chuckv says:

      @BrianDaBrain: Maybe it’s because I work 2 blocks from the NYSE, but $9 for a sandwich doesn’t seem too outrageous.

      • Firethorn says:

        @chuckv: In my area a $9 sandwich better be huge and tasty, which I doubt these are.

        I wonder if this charging for food is actually making them any money – I never see many taking them up on the offer, so I wonder how much food ends up going to waste because of it.

        Personally, I’ve found that I can get a decent sit down meal in the airport for not much more than they want for their snacks.

    • Oranges w/ Cheese says:

      @BrianDaBrain: $9 for a sandwich isn’t really a stretch. After all, subway just used their 5-dollar-footlong campaign to subtly raise their prices across the board (notice the veggie delite used to be $4 something before the 5-dollar campaign and now its $5 even? Sneaky…)

      And in a world where people are willing to pay $5 for a cup of coffee.. is $9 for a sandwich really a stretch? If people pay for it, and some will, they’ve been approved, regardless of how many people think its a bad idea.

      Same thing with people complaining about the $4 a gallon gasoline and still filling up their explorer every week, without fail. What sort of a message does it send when we still continue to buy these things? “We will pay for it, no matter what the price.” That’s what the corporations want to hear.

  9. A buddy who works for a major airline says don’t be surprised if United doesn’t make it to 2009.

  10. Tedicles says:

    I have to admit that I don’t care much for the in-air food, most of it is pretty nasty. Even when I fly business class to China they offer a “filet” but it is more rubber than beef. I’ve always wondered why not give us a GOOD BLT rather than a crappy filet mignon?

    If we just skip the inflight meals, and get some decent tasting food at the airport before departing, I think that would be great (obviously return flights from places like Guangzhou China may not have much to choose from). But the problem is that we cannot bring any food in through security, then they charge us an arm and a leg for fast food crap.

    The whole thing is a monopoly, much like going to a sports arena. I say, either:
    1. give us decent food at decent prices at the airports to bring along
    2. let us bring some decent food from the ‘outside world’ dangerous as it may be…
    3. serve an easy, tasty meal onboard without trying to be a resturant!

    • geckospots says:

      @Tedicles: I bring food on board all the time. I’ve traveled with sandwiches, yogurt, cheese and crackers, grapes, apples, granola bars, etc etc etc. I try to make time before I fly to put something together (although it doesn’t always work out).

      In all the time I’ve been traveling I’ve never had a security person try to take my food away.

  11. EyeHeartPie says:

    I understand that current market climate causes airlines to consider cutting amenities and other services that cost them money, but I hate it when they talk corporate-speak and say that they are going to stop providing meals on international flights to increase our options, or that after listening to consumers, they decided to start charging for checked baggage.

    Why can’t they just come out and say it? “In order to keep ticket prices low, we need to start charging for food during flights”, etc…

    • katylostherart says:

      just imagine the cracker crunching in stereo if they decided to do away with the hot meals. everyone pulls out their wheat thins at once and CRUNCH.

      @EyeHeartPie: they pay probably a dollar or two at most for those trays of yuck. in the industry of bulk, frozen, microwaved dishes, even if they were the most awesome (except for the ones served in porcelain trays) of TV dinners they’d be $7 each bought individually. with everything else that goes into a ticket, they’re really just splitting hairs here on cost savings. places that order lots of food at once get good deals, ie. fast food, hospitals, schools. they’re not losing money by feeding their customers. unless they start supplying from morton’s it’s saving them $2/ticket.

  12. nicemarmot617 says:

    I’m sorry but I just don’t believe that the food costs them that much money, and if it does, it just indicates that their problems are even deeper than most people realize. I can buy better quality food for $5 at the local deli, and I live in Manhattan. Do they really pay more than say $.50 for one of those meals?

    • Orv says:

      @nicemarmot617: I’m guessing their concern is not so much for the cost of the meals themselves, it’s the extra weight of the food, the refrigerators to store it, and the ovens to heat it. Extra weight means extra fuel burned, which increases costs.

  13. ianmac47 says:

    Too little, too late. The PR damage has already been done.

  14. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    “Could you spare nine dollars for a sandwich?”
    “Let me see the sandwich.”

    OK, it sounds funnier than it reads.

  15. HeyBeav says:

    None of this is ‘free’ as it has to be paid for one way or another. I used to work in hospitality and we had an ala carte breakfasts. Our guests complained so we changed to a complimentary breakfast and raised our rate $20.

    End result, happy guests.

    And geckospots, I’m with you. I’ve brought pastrami sandwiches, whole smoked chickens and more on planes. If you bring enough to share and it’s good food you’ll be a hero with the flight attendants.

    • Parapraxis says:


      I think people are just happier when things are inclusive.

      Most people would rather have a hike in prices and receive the same quality (or incrementally better service, to hide the increase) than holding the line and having things “disappear.”

    • philipbarrett says:

      @HeyBeav: Simple – the room is paid for by the company, the breakfast comes out of personal Per Diems. If the breakfast is included in the rate, the company pays for it.

    • ianmac47 says:


      Raised the rate $20 for what, $2 in continental breakfast?

  16. Fly Girl says:

    Wow, hey there, United? Ever heard of conducting your market research BEFORE announcing it to the public and garnering a whole freakin’ bunch of negative PR? It’s gonna be pretty hard to rebound from this one… What a major, major gaffe.

  17. Caveat says:

    Remember, when you fly international you generally have a choice, and usually the foreign carrier’s food and service is better, based on my personal experience.

  18. Mr. Guy says:

    united took the john mccain approach: announce first, ask questions later. so far it seems to be working out splendidly for all involved.

  19. whitefang2000 says:

    for some reason American based airlines provide pretty crappy international flight amenities. BA and Virgin Airlines are much better IMO.

  20. I can tell you that from personal experience, the 8 dollar sandwiches on Delta are far worse than the free meals they used to serve you.

    And these are the Todd English signature meals that sound oh so fancy. Who the hell serves Chicken Cutlet Parmigiana cold?
    If you were a famous chef, how much would it cost for you to whore out (and tarnish) your name for really bad airline food, served in plastic wrap without any plate?

    I certainly wouldn’t pay to eat at any of Todd English’s restaurants after tasting the crap they serve on the plane.

    Also, can we please end the ridiculous war on liquids? I am sick of security theater that just inconveniences me and just creates an illusion of security. We can’t blow up the plane with a bottle of pepsi. And if it is so potentially dangerous, why do they make me throw it into a big garbage can in the middle of the terminal? Wouldn’t the bomb squad come and cover the bottle and detonate it?

  21. Barney_The Plug_ Frank says:

    I remember taking a flight, Delta I think, from Reagan National to Atlanta (Hartsfield). As we were boarding the aircraft from the jetway, Delta had a rack of bagged lunches (Sky Deli I think) for passengers to grab, as one walked onto the aircraft.

    The bag included a cold sub(roast beef/turkey), chips, cookies and a dill pickle. Nothing fancy, but the sandwich was decent and hit the spot.

    The flight attendants only had to serve drinks and collect the empty lunch bags. Sounds like a great concept and should be followed by other majors.

  22. ProfessionalCritic says:

    I usually don’t have a problem bringing food on flights either, with one exception. Last year a super-zealous screener in Boston grabbed my hummus with a “ho HO what do we have here” sense of glee. I showed her that it was food, and not a liquid or a gel, at which point she informed me “it’s considered a paste” and proceeded to wipe the container down with one of those Clearasil pad things that detects explosive residue. My lunch was allowed to get on the plane with me, but that had to be one of the stupidest encounters I’ve had at the airport. And I wonder, do non-Middle Eastern paste-y foods get subjected to the same treatment or did I experience culinary profiling?

  23. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    I wonder what the “hot meal” will consist of? Mmmmm, international airline gruel, direct from the Thembrian Gruel reserves! Yummy!

  24. Ben Popken says:

    I remember when we accidentally posted Graham’s cellphone number. That was hilarious.

  25. Overheal says:

    I sent them an email as well to the same effect. Im glad they woke up to common sense regarding the international flight food services.

  26. VincentOMoh says:

    Tedicles, you are allowed to bring food through U.S. security. U.S. security will NOT let you take drinks, so take an empty water bottle and, once past security, fill it with tap water.

    Suburbancowboy: Todd English is a well-known cook. I don’t know how his restaurants are, but the BOB sandwiches are just a name “brand.” They probably are not representative of his cooking.

    If you want service, *be willing to pay more money for plane tickets if it means better prices. Do not get the cheapest prices.* If people began buying based on service, the airlines would increase service.