A raucous debate is going on right now on amongst frequent flyers regarding how meal orders should be taken in premium cabins of the combined United/Continental.
Currently, Continental takes meal orders from front-to-back on all flights, regardless of fare paid or status. United, at least in theory, prioritizes meals choices based on status and fare paid, where those with top-tier status or flying on full-fares get preference. According to policy, FAs should also begin in the front and work their way to the back of the cabin, asking for the first and second choice of each passenger and then sorting out the orders in the galley.
In reality, however, United FAs often do what they want. On most flights, orders are taken by status, but the FA will hop around the cabin and take meals orders starting with Global Service members and working her way down, thereby obviating the need to do any sorting later on. On some flights, meal orders are simply taken from front-to-back without regard for status or fare paid. And on other flights, the FAs take meal orders properly.
There is something to be said about the simplicity of CO’s system–passengers know from the start how meal choices will be taken and there is an aspect of useful egalitarianism (a bit ironic in a first class cabin) that minimizes expectations and helps people to rationalize the fact that they did not receive the food they wanted.
But UA’s system is better. Why not give better customers the better choice? Take a passenger who has a change of plans and purchases a full-fare first class ticket at the last moment and winds up in the last row of business class. Shouldn’t she get priority over a Premier member who received a complimentary upgrade a few rows up? And what about aircraft where the preferred row is in the back? I know many frequent flyers on UA like row six on the 757 because it is close the restroom and allows for an easier departure out of door 2L after the flight. Row one on the 757 features the worst seats in first class which are less comfortable, in my opinion, than some rows of Economy Plus. These bulkhead seats are often the last to be assigned and go to ugpraders lower in the pecking order. Why should they get first meal choice?
It bears mentioning that many people could care less about meal choices, especially when we’re talking about airline food, but look around next time you fly in a premium cabin–I think more people enjoy airline meals than conventional wisdom suggests.
The new United should reject Continental’s way of taking meal orders and instead embrace a method that recognizes the passengers who support the airline the most.
For both of my meal flights in F on CO since the merger I’ve had to accept less desireable seats in order to ensure my choice of meal. For both flights I knew I was not going to have time to eat before hand, so I was actually counting on the meal. On one flight I accepted 2A instead of 4B on a 737-800 (I typically prefer aisles), and on another I accepted 1B instead of 3B on a 737-700 (I typically avoid bulkheads).
The ordering process on UA (when properly done) ensures that the best customers are taken care of first, regardless of seating position. The best UA FAs even keep track as they go so they generally ask lower status pax for their second choice while only asking for one choice from the GS / full fare customers.
Count my vote for UA’s scheme.
If everybody followed it, UA has the better system. However because it is complicated to actually do, there are many FA’s who choose to do a simplified service of front to back or back to front. Because it is the simplest way to do it, CO is able to ensure that the same system is used throughout the airline.
It is that consistency that is its strength. You don’t have to worry about if you have a proper service, or the lazy service. And that gives less room for complaints as it is the same each time and so the customers can adapt, rather than getting surprised when they get a different service and end up losing their choice because the FA did not follow the policy.