United Airlines has acknowledged that its in-flight meals have been slow to change but is promising new choices with more variety in the weeks ahead. Let’s take a look at what United Airlines is saying and preview five new dishes that have already debuted on domestic routes.
United Airlines Promises More Choice In In-Flight Meals
Linda Jojo is United’s Chief Customer Officer. While she is not directly responsible for in-flight meals, she and her teams “deliver the processes and tools to create an airline that customers choose to fly.” Specifically, that includes digital technology, contact centers, customer solutions, and innovation.
One way in which Jojo has impacted in-flight meals is by gradually expanding pre-order capabilities, giving passengers the ability to choose their preferred meal in advance. She has also overseen the design of a new flight attendant iPhone app to take meal orders and record customer choices, with the goal being to better optimize meal provisioning onboard so that passengers receive their first choice.
But speaking at the Skift Aviation Forum in Dallas earlier this week, Jojo sarcastically addressed what is on the mind of every frequent United flyer:
“I know you probably love the za’atar chicken and the Impossible meatballs. Sorry to say, they’re probably not gonna be around much longer.”
These dishes were not bad the first, second, third, or even fourth time around…but have been the primary choices on most non-longhaul meal service routes for six months. The inability of United to rotate its menu items more often has been confounding. Jojo blamed the pandemic and supply lane issues:
“What I would say is that we definitely got slowed down first by the pandemic itself and now by the supply chain challenges that have been there.”
Judging by the ability of United’s peers to bring back food sooner and offer more quantity and variety, I’d say the primary problem was cost-cutting.
While it is not clear if meal budgets have increased, United has recently refreshed its menu and promised more variation going forward.
On domestic flights, that includes five new entree choices and for the first time since the pandemic, different vegetarian dishes depending upon the direction of the flight:
- Belgium waffle with caramelized apple and cranberry compote
- Egg frittata with Potatoes O’Brien, sausage, and cooked spinach
- Chicken curry noodle bowl with rice noodles, fresh vegetables, and spices
- Cauliflower grain salad with cauliflower rice, zucchini squash, avocado salsa, and green chile (on westbound flights)
- Harvest grain bowl with quinoa, butternut squash, feta, and mandarin oranges (on eastbound flights)
United further promises six “new signature entrees” available via pre-order beginning on December 1, 2022.
This latest change marks only the third variation to domestic first class since meal service was restored nearly 18 months ago. As we reported yesterday, hot towels and ice cream sundaes will return to longhaul Polaris business class starting on December 1st as well.
United Airlines hopes to offer more variety in terms of in-flight meals going forward and empower passengers to choose meals in advance. Both are welcome changes, but United must also ensure the quality and taste of the meals are also sufficient, especially as Alaska, American, and Delta continue to improve their in-flight offerings.
Other than the breakfast meals, these all look horrible. Other than the fact that they’re different, I don’t see any improvement here at all.
A few years back, Subaru found out their chief steel inspector wasn’t certified but had been working in the company for 31 years or something. The person was working one day and the chief inspector before him told him to look at some steel and see if it’s satisfactory or not because he wanted to grab lunch or something and that day on, this person started to “inspect” steel for the next 2+ decades.
Point is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happened with United but for catering.
I totally agree with you!
Pre-ordering has not worked well in my experience. Whenever something other than the chicken or meatballs are available to order I do so, then onboard I’m told my meal wasn’t loaded and offered the dry chicken or boring meatballs.
Yup I’ve ordered the burger twice in the last couple months and it was “not loaded” both times.
Are vegetarians not worthy of a hot dish? That sucks.
It’s probably because a meaningful number of “omnivores” wind up stuck with vegetarian meals, and many hot vegetarian meals on planes are just gross. Salads (or salad-like) things probably have a higher acceptance rating than the warm veg options.
That’s just it though – you’re essentially not catering to the actual vegetarians. I’m not one, so I can just choose the best available option. If they’d just bring back the Thai chicken that used to go round in Polaris. That was amazing.
I have a lot of vegetarians in my family and social circles. 90% of them will tell you that the most frustrating thing about being a vegetarian is that people think vegetarian food is salad or pasta. Sounds like UA is going down that road.
That said, of the current set – the proper vegetarian options are far and away the best meals. The falafel bowl, and the vegetarian chili. The impossible meatballs not bad, but that’s clearly catered to omnivores.
UA has an option to order a vegetarian meal that is different than whatever is presented.
Are we sure that new dishes are cold?
Matthew, I have personally experienced the Curry noodle bowl and it was absolutely terrible.
Do your contacts know that the new meals are no better or in some cases worse than the last round of meals?
The “Special” vegetarian meal is disgusting. United (and other airlines) don’t want to create an actual vegetarian meal, so they make a low-fat, low-sugar, vegan meal. You don’t get bread or dessert or cheese or anything else that makes food worth eating. As a vegetarian, all i want is a meal without MEAT! How about cheese enchiladas, veggie lasagne, cheese omelet? There are tons of things they could make. Of course, the meat eaters will snatch them up first, and I’ll still be left with their remaining meat dishes.
You have to remember a vegetarian meal, in airplane food can be loaded with carbohydrates and sugar. Not the healthiest of meals. Having a protein-packed meal with lentils or as such is a high hope.
I have to say, when UA promises something, I’ll believe it when I see it. They hear the complaints, particularly for Polaris onboard meals, but I tend to say follow the money, and if people are still booking them without their spending any more money on food, they are not going to change things much. Of course, I am also not convinced they are getting value for the money they do spend, on food
Nice to see more options available, but are they going to step up with a proper appetizer and salad before the main on longer flights like transcons and even the ORD-west coast kind of flights
AA well ahead here
Gosh I really really HATE those casserole style of plates they are using these days.
I think United is beginning to cycle out the dog bowls for a new square casserole dish
What about hot towels and warm nuts on domestic First?? Those 2 were there before.
Warm nuts? That’s a joke right. You’re sitting on them. LOL. No really, nuts are healthy. At least they keep you from getting hungry and they don’t raise your blood sugar, and insulin response like a sugar snack would do.
I tried JetBlue MINT service from Boston to Seattle for the first time last week, and it was a great experience from start to finish. The food was not just excellent quality, it was in large portions and delicious. Alaska Airlines is the only airline that comes close on transcon flights. And as a bonus, the flight attendants were welcoming and were definitely more service oriented then the legacy FA’s that just won’t go away……..
Pax with special meal diets. Kids meals, or you don’t like or get your choice of meal says 1 thing……bring your own airline aproved meal in a self contained package. Airlines will only not store your food until you want to eat so plan accordingly. You can supplement your meal with what the airline offers. Everybody wins here!
I ate the chicken curry this afternoon flying from DEN to SMF. It did not even look as good as it did in the picture. The handful of carrots were much smaller, like 1970s era TV dinner carrot cubes, and there was quite more pasta which was not particularly well coated in the curry sauce. Taste was wasn’t too bad, just barely registered as vaguely curryish.
Was the other dish hot or cold?
Well I’ve just disembarked a flight from FLL to IAH and preselected the Cauliflower Grain Salad. To my utter disbelief it was served HOT, along with the other option. I questioned what I was served and they confirmed it was the Cauliflower dish. Stunned by the stupidity of the crew on this flight. So yeah, you might just get a hot vegetarian dish after all,
I wasn’t quite sure what the other offering was, I was halfway through removing my ear buds and just said yes when the FA said “chicken”. The passenger next to me got the other alternative and it looking like some kind of sandwich, not sure if it was something like a burger, but I think I was better off.
on the SFO-LHR route I’ve taken to eating in the lounge before I board. UA’s Polaris onboard food has become dire and has never recovered from the cost cutting. I really really wish they’d fix it.
Are these replacing the italian ragu?
I have never puked harder than I did on Wednesday after the impossible meatballs
Impossible meat is impossibly disgusting and to serve it as a dish in a first class cabin has really shocked me over the last 6 months or however long they’ve been doing it.
United catering will only change with a significant overhaul and a complete change in vision. Which will take a worthy investment and a better understanding of its customers. In the meantime expect the same…meals that are barely one step above what you see at the local 7-11 counter when you wait in line.
It isn’t just the quantity of meal choices, it’s the quality of the meals as well that matters…you can offer a dozen choices, but if most of them aren’t good, what’s the point?
Also, as others pointed out, they need to also start offering a real appetizer and salad, not a hybrid of the two…but again, the quality needs to be good as well.
I’m a frequent flyer in the three major alliances and read reviews by frequent travelers. At this point United is a discount airline charging premium prices. I will fly them only if the ticket is less expensive than other carriers. United is being greedy when it comes to profits and cavalier when it comes to delivering a good inflight food experience.
Continental had great meals, portions, variety under Gordon and the Continental Congress of Chefs program.
I hate when they try to get all fancy with the menu and put non mainstream food items… Stick with the basics and do it well.
Like the Polaris Lounge not serving Bacardi, what bar doesn’t have Bacardi
Agree. In 2021, United made a “business decision” to sell off (former CO subsidiary) Chelsea Catering in pieces. It should have come as no surprise to UA management when catering quality, consistency, and continuity quickly went to hell in a handbasket. To feign otherwise is disingenuous.
After the merger United was saddled with abysmal Continental management and mentality. Smisek and Co (pun intended) took a good airline to the mat. UA was still trying to get up from under the poor legacy that post merger CO management left behind then COVID hit. UA can hope to finally shake the dust of the disastrous merger off its wings.
Thank you so much for giving kudos to the Continental food service. United threw Continental quality out the window with the merger of the two airlines. CAL had real purpose china and glassware; great menus chef created and rotated on a regular basis; meal components served butler style (as opposed to the United school lunch tray load up); etc.
Continental was sold down river by Jeff S. on the gift he would be “king” of the largest airline via a merger. He forsook the Continental way of service that so many paasenger still lament and sorely miss to this day.
How can you say airplane food is healthy? It’s all processed, laden with sugar which causes bad health and possibly cancer in the long run. I reserve my airplane seat strictly for flying, not food and wait for some home-cooked meal at a restaurant (maybe) and or at mama’s house (sadly she passed away). Anyway, enjoy, whatever you do.
I can’t imaging paying for First without focusing on the meal. That’s one of the main reasons I’m there. I love not having to stand in line at the airport or tote around my own snacks. I get to board and relax in my seat while someone serves a hot, fresh meal, perfectly plated, with a smile. I always look forward to the meal most on every flight.
These meals don’t even look good. And I agree with the poster above regarding the dishwater – it’s HORRIBLE. United isn’t even trying here.
Matthew, come on… these new options from United are still absolutely trash compared to their competitors. I’m 1K with United and they’ve lost almost all of my business.
These only apply to mainline United. Regional airlines operating as United Express are still serving that cheese and cracker garbage at all hours of the day.
They need to change those casserole plates. The odd oval/square geometry is a grim reminder that one is on an airplane.
It is not just that the food is awful, it’s that United is printing money while serving unsuitable food. Each meal is a way of saying, “we are extorting you.”
The irony is that Continental had arguably the best food of any US carrier. They owned their kitchens and took great pride in their catering. There was even a time when crew working in BusinessFirst wore white serving jackets. There were soups served in demitasse porcelain, hot hors d’oeuvres, sourdough baked on board, a cheese cart (with the little flags), Drei Meister chocolates… the list goes on.
United, however, was never the catering leader. I distinctly remember eating some form of cat food in “Global First.”
It seems that the combined carrier chose the cheapest, saddest catering. The hospital has better food. It is almost a form of aggression toward United’s guests. “We are running away with your money, and we are going to treat you with deliberate indifference. Here’s your egg white ‘bite’ and congealed cauliflower. Would you like a knuckle sandwich?” They might as well switch to “Nutri-loaf” for the full prison experience.
Inflight food is never going to be as good as something on the ground, but we all know that airlines CAN produce high-quality meals. They just choose not to do it.
Just ditch the white flour. My god, why do people eat such non-food?
Third-quarter UA revenue rose to $12.88 billion with over $942 million in profit. Share prices rose beyond analysts’ expectations. Clearly shareholder value is more important to UA suits than customer experience. I was recently on the morning flight from FRA to ORD in Polaris and the purser came through the cabin to apologize for the truly awful breakfast served to us “premium cabin” folks. I can only imagine the slop served in the back.
I wouldn’t feed the cuurent selections to my dog!!