This month, United Airlines has restored buy-on-board service to a select flights. Several flight attendants have reached out to me in concern over this move, noting it comes as the number of reported COVID-19 cases is again surging in the United States. Is United bringing back buy-on-board service too quickly?
United Airlines Buy-On-Board Service Has Resumed On Select Routes
Snacks and drinks are once again available for purchase on flights departing Denver (DEN) to the following destinations:
- Boston (BOS)
- Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
- Honolulu (HNL)
- Houston (IAH)
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- Newark (EWR)
- San Francisco (SFO)
- Washington Dulles (IAD)
- Washington National (DCA)
This includes beer, wine, snack boxes, and the following light snacks:
- Think Jerky (beef jerky)
- GourmetNut Power Up Antioxidant Mix
- Lillie’s Q (buttermilk & sweet onion kettle chips)
Flight Attendants Concerned This Will Lead To Extended Periods Without Masks
Each flight attendant who reached out to me expressed a similar viewpoint: the return of more food and beverages onboard is not safe right now.
One flight attendant also forwarded me an internal memo from Mandeep Grewal, United’s Vice President of Customer Strategy and Innovation. The memo essentially verifies this is a widespread concern and offers United’s take on the issue.
First, United promises to run all changes to onboard service by the Cleveland Clinic:
Some of you shared concerns that more food and beverage onboard means more customers without masks for longer periods of time. We are working hard to maintain a safe environment while providing customers an enjoyable travel experience. You have my commitment that we will be thoughtful with our testing and the reintroduction of for purchase food and beverage. We will continue to evaluate any and every change made and work with the Cleveland Clinic to ensure we are using the best cabin safety practices.
United Will Limit Passengers To One Alcoholic Beverage
Next, United promises to limit passengers to one alcoholic drink during each beverage service. Passengers will also be advised they can only briefly pull their mask down. Expect the following onboard announcement:
“As we begin our service, we’d like to remind everyone of the requirement to continue wearing your mask throughout the entire flight as recommended by the CDC, and required by United, to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Please only pull down your mask when actively eating or drinking and then promptly replace your mask over both your nose and mouth. In order to minimize the amount of time with masks off, you’ll only be able to buy one beer or wine each time we come through the aisle with the beverage cart. As a reminder, you must have your credit card saved in the United App in order to make a purchase. Thank you.”
Why Is United Bringing Back Food + Drink During A Spike In Reported Cases?
The memo also addresses why United is bringing back service now, especially as reported new COVID-19 are creeping up rapidly.
Many of you had this question, and it’s a good one. COVID-19 cases are up across the country and your concern is definitely warranted. That said, the reality is that customers are asking for more food and beverage choices, especially on longer flights. You may have noticed that many customers are bringing their own food on board – so it’s not that customers aren’t eating or drinking. We believe that by providing additional food and beverage choices, we can better control how long customers are without their face covers and have better control of what comes onboard, allowing for safer handling of trash.
Grewal seems almost apologetic for the fact that food and drinks have returned:
This will only be for select routes over 800 miles (DEN to hubs, BOS, DCA, and HNL), and we will limit customers to one beer or one wine for each beverage cart service to limit the time customers are without a mask. I also want to be clear, we are not restoring liquor on board. We will only offer beer and wine during standard beverage service like we do currently with other beverages.
My Take: Valid Concerns On Both Sides
I can certainly understand and appreciate why United flight attendants are concerned about the resumption of service onboard. There’s a bit of contradiction in the notion that customers are asking for it (probably because the majority of airport concessions remain closed) and the notion that it won’t be so bad because customers just bring onboard food anyway.
I expect we’ll observe more passengers eating and drinking for longer periods due to this change and acknowledge that can seem concerning.
But I cringed at Grewal’s peusdo-apology for restoring this service. With all the cleaning protocols and air filtration systems, airplanes are incredibly safe environments. Yes, when passengers are eating and drinking instead of wearing a mask, the risk of transmission for the virus (or a cold or flu) grows. At the same time, United is fighting for survival and buy-on-board service provides an important revenue stream. Furthermore, customers unprepared for their flight should be able to pay exorbitant prices for junk food if they are that desperately hungry.
Flight attendants at United are concerned about the return of buy-on-board service during this months in a trial out of Denver. Some are very unhappy about this. My take is that both sides have a point. If passengers are going to buy food and drink anyway, why shouldn’t United sell it? On the other hand, this will encourage more mask lowering onboard. Ultimately, though, flight attendants will need to get used to to the return of full service onboard…it will eventually come and the added risk of selling food and drink once again seems quite de minimis.