“I do think if you fly United today the food experience is dramatically better than where it was a year ago.”
-Andrew Nocella, Chief Commercial Officer at United Airlines
I would wholeheartedly agree.
But the work is not done.
How United Airlines Plans Continued Onboard Meal Service Improvements
Speaking at the Skift forum in Dallas, Nocella was asked by Brian Sumers about meal service on United, specifically why it is so bad.
I would have phrased the question differently, but a good discussion followed which gives us a window into the C-Suite mentality over the meal service at United.
Nocella has assumed the role of the meal fixer at United, taking a hands-ons approach over the last year to help bring United’s meal service up to par at least with its domestic competitors American Airlines and Delta Air Lines.
He conceded, “We didn’t bounce back from the pandemic as well as we would have liked,” but noted that progress is ongoing and that United is serving 165,000 premium cabin meals a day across its worldwide route network and spending $2 billion per year on food.
What takes so long to make improvements? Nocella blamed supply chain woes.
“It takes about eight months to change the menu on an airplane. You would think just oh just snap your fingers but just like everyone else complaining about supply chain issues, the same issues are related to food…But we have made plenty of progress.”
I’d quibble with him here that the issue is likely supply chain woes + cost. Tell your caterer to supply, say, soup with salad and it is possible on a very short time horizon, but not at a cost United is willing to stomach.
- Upgraded wines
- Upgraded bread
- New entree choices which vary by region
On that last point, United used to offer different menus to/from different markets, but since the pandemic the menus have largely been standardized with a very similar menu on all Polaris flights out of the USA and identical menus based upon region for inbound flights to the USA.
That has changed a bit lately, with the reintroduction of special dishes like Japanese meals on flights to Japan or local dishes on the new San Francisco – Manila service. United is also trialing a new tapas service on its flights between San Francisco and Singapore.
But without offering further elaboration, Nocella said, “Part of it is that we changed the process.” By that he meant that United went from in-house to third party catering during the pandemic and that fundamentally transformed quality control and for many flyers, resulted in a degradation of meal service quality.
Speaking as a very frequent United flyer, I give Nocella great credit for the improvements he had made over the last year, including:
- A better domestic rotation of food plus expanded preordering
- The return of ice cream sundaes and appetizers in Polaris business class
- Improved pre-arrival meals in Polaris business class
- Enhanced wine selection in Polaris (though the Champagne quality has been greatly reduced)
There are still mysteries for me, a frequent flyer, like why United has failed to update its premium transcontinental menu in three years or why the preordering system for Polaris flights merely allocates a preset number of meals rather than actively determines what meals will be catered.
I’d also love to see United offer something like hot mixed nuts in first class on all flights, even very short ones, which is the sort of small touch that tangibly builds loyalty.
But Nocella seems to me to be the right man for this role and I am quite pleased with the progress he is making, even if I do not fully buy the “supply chain” excuse for the slow speed in which these improvements are rolling out.
You can watch the entire interview below (I’ve queued it up to the meal service question):
I do give United credit for improving meal service onboard: we have come a long way from a year ago and the food on both short- and long-haul flights is much better than in the past three years (both in terms of volume and taste). Even so, if United truly hopes to win a revenue premium for better food and be a leading global carrier, the investments must continue.
image: vintage United Airlines ad