United Airlines is trying to win the hearts of frequent business travelers, by going through their stomachs.
Many of their top fliers defected to other carriers after a rocky merge with Continental Airlines, and since then United has been looking for ways to win them back. One of these ways is replacing snacks with full meals on some short flights, as well as upgrading the food options for first class.
On Thursday, August 21st, the changes were announced, which mean that instead of chocolate chip cookies, potato chips and bananas, passengers on flights of 800 miles and up will receive full meals such as turkey and Swiss cheese on a cranberry baguette and chicken and mozzarella on a tomato focaccia roll. Meals are currently only served on flights of more than 900 miles or trips lasting about two hours.
Starting in February, the passengers on 13 extra routes, including Houston-to-Des Moines, Iowa, will be receiving full meal service.
This comes as American Airlines does the opposite, by eliminating hot meals on most flights fewer than 1,000 miles as of September 1st. This upsetting change is a result of the merger between American and US Airways. First class meals on Delta Air Lines are only served on flights greater than 900 miles.
Compared to its competitors, United will offer full meals on many more short flights, although exceptions are made for each airline on some key shorter business routes, such as the 731-mile trip between New York and Chicago.
Already this month, two bland salad options have been swapped by United with four heartier choices. As of September 1st, eight daily made sandwich and wrap choices will replace the three frozen and reheated sandwiches currently served. Prosecco sparkling wine will also be added to its beverage menu this fall.
"Customers shouldn't have to make sacrifices just because they are onboard an aircraft," says Todd Traynor-Corey, the airline's managing director of food design.
Food has always been a way to cut cost, in an industry that has such small profit margins. 645 million passengers are carried by U.S. airlines each year domestically, and every small decision regarding food had large implications. In the 1980s, then American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall made the famous decision to remove a single olive from every salad. He figured that passengers would not notice and American would save $40,000 a year.
Nearly a decade has passed since most airlines stopped providing complimentary meals for coach seated passengers on domestic flights.
An airline consultant with ICF International, Dennis Cary, says meals alone won't cause a traveler to choose one airline over another, but does affect their overall impression of the flight.
"It's on the margin," Cary says, "but it's one of the things people like to talk about."
Since its 2010 merger with Continental, United has been struggling. It straggles behind American and Delta in the number of planes with Wi-Fi, its performance in on-time flights has fallen and a series of computer issues have left passengers annoyed. Business travelers who were weekly fliers were lured away by other airlines after getting fed up with the repeated problems.
CEO Jeff Smisek has wrestled with receiving the same high airfares from business customers as other airlines do, resulting in pressure from Wall Street analysts. The meal improvements could be a way to begin to win back some passengers.
Some might believe it unnecessary to have a hot meal on a two-hour flight, but for many busy frequent fliers it could be the only chance they have to relax and eat a meal.
Co-founder of online frequent flier discussion site MilePoint, Gary Leff, says, "Business travelers, running from a meeting to catch an earlier flight, don't have the time stop and pick up food along the way.”