Is United Airlines Out to Destroy Business Class?


I frequently travel both domestically and internationally. I am on a plane at least twice a month. In order to keep sane, I have pre-packed carry-on luggage, which gets a seasonal update. My quart bag of basic toiletries adheres to the three-ounce limit of liquids and I wear compression socks on long flights. Food-wise, I have a baggie of organic dry-roasted almonds because I despise the airline snacks that are full of salt, sugar and salt. Electronically, I organize my airline apps, rewards numbers and boarding passes in a folder on my Smartphone so that the information is just a few taps away. Being organized for travel has become a hobby and my Facebook friends regularly post: Where in the world is Layne?

When I travel, I opt for comfort and I’m willing to pay for it. While I lived in Europe, I paid annual dues for an EasyJet Plus status so that I wouldn’t have to fight the crowds when it was time to queue (British way of saying “form a line”). EasyJet is the second-largest low-cost airline carrier in Europe. Otherwise, I often treat myself to business class, either through a mileage program upgrade or a moderate payment adder. The larger seats, added foot room and ability to board early make it worthwhile when you spend so much time up in the air. Then there is the drumroll–the undeniable excitement, as a result of boredom, when the food and beverage trollies park by the side of your seat.

Sorry to sound like a downer, but let’s face it, we can agree that airline food is mediocre at its best. No matter the propaganda sent out by the airline’s marketing “mad-men”, five-star cuisine and reheated food just don’t mesh. There are exceptions and most are international carriers. I recently flew Air New Zealand and even their economy class meals are focused on fresh, local ingredients and wines. Besides the food, the dishes are elegant and their in-flight safety videos are NOT to be missed. The latest one features several bikini-clad Sports Illustrated models, which will certainly enhance the appetite of the men onboard. AirFrance, Turkish Airlines, Thai Airways International, Austrian Airlines and others that have won awards of excellence in different categories for inflight food service. But what about the food served on domestic flights in the USA?

In general, the airline industry is not well liked in the United States. It seems like passengers are always unhappy and flight attendants no longer smile. A flight attendant once told me how she resents passengers because they are rude. Why choose to be in the service industry if you can’t get over a little rudeness. Then again, Americans do need lessons on etiquette. Especially when sharing bathrooms! Let’s get back to the food.

For the past few months, I’ve been flying business class domestically on United Airlines. The company boats more revenue passenger miles than any airline in the world. Late afternoon meals have been soup and a hot sandwich or soup and a salad. The soups are salty and most are creamy. They might as well call it a bowl of salty milk. As for the sandwiches, another heap of salt is embedded in a processed chicken breast oozing with cheese wrapped in white bread. It’s worse than a sandwich from a fast food joint. The salads are a base of chopped lettuce that tastes like its been sitting in a plastic bag. There is an option to have shrimp on top, which have a chemical aftertaste. If you’re on a later flight, you might get lucky and have the option of pasta with vegetables. That’s if they don’t run out by the time they get to take your order. The pasta choice is halfway decent although more veggies please! Don’t bother with the beef dish. If you’re a meat-eater it may sound good, but once it makes it to your tray, the meat is congealed and the veggies are shriveled. It’s sweet that United offers “freshly-baked” cookies. I agree that cookies are considered sweets, but at some point, “too sweet” becomes annoying. How about offering fresh, seasonal fruit? Lately, my husband prefers to travel in coach class on United, since the Tapas box, which he pays for, at least has elements of real food in it including natural hummus, simple crackers and dry-roasted almonds.

In all fairness, because there is less humidity when in flight, we have a decreased sense of taste and smell, almost as if you had a bad cold. A study completed in 2010 found that passengers also have a significant decrease in perception of saltiness and sweetness. Still, this is no reason to over-salt and over-sweeten airline food!

As far as alcohol, I don’t drink when I’m traveling. It’s dehydrating and gives me headaches. I hear that the wine for sale in United Airlines economy class is better than the free wine in business class. When it comes to wine selection, can’t United take a lesson from AirFrance? And how about placing a linen cloth on the tray table? The planes are not thoroughly cleaned from one flight to the next. It would be scary to know how many germs are lurking in and around our seats and tray tables.

Every once in awhile I complete the emailed airline survey and take the time to explain my dislike of the food. I get a standard thank you for filling out the survey and never any response about improving the food. I have even offered free professional services to consult with the airline chef de cuisine and invited the CEO to read my new book: Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy. Then again, there are some of us that actually like the mediocrity of airline meals and don’t mind an untidy place.