United Airlines Food Upgrade-Hype or Hope?

Last year, I reported that I was fed-up with the poor quality of food being served in business class on United Airlines’ U.S. domestic flights. I started flying Delta Airlines because they served healthier food options like fresh fruit, whole grain rolls and mixed green salads. A few months ago, reports in the news trumpeted that United was improving food and that changes would gradually be introduced. Headlines included “United Airlines is upgrading first-class food options and replacing snacks with full meals on some of its shortest flights.” Many of us frequent business class flyers were skeptical and wondered if the news was just PR hype or if indeed United Airlines was taking their foodservice more seriously.

The three largest U.S. airline carriers are American, United and Delta. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, U.S. airlines are now competing in the onboard experience, adding Wi-Fi, in-flight entertainment, new seats, larger bins and fresher food. The domestic market outperforms the international market financially and so the airlines are paying more attention to their customers.

However, according to a New York Daily News article, American Airlines eliminated hot meals on most flights less than 1000 miles. The cutoff for Delta Air Lines is 900 miles for first class meals. United boasts serving hot meals for shorter flights than its competitors with a cutoff of 800 miles. Each of these airlines makes exceptions for some key shorter business routes like the 731-mile trip from New York to Chicago or Dallas/Fort Worth to Chicago.

American Airlines continues to have the option to reserve your choice of entree up to 30 days in advance of your First Class (or Business Class) flight. And Delta Airlines offers 17 different special order meals to choose from when you book in advance. Unfortunately, United Airlines does not offer special meals on its domestic business class flights except for two routes: 1) New York JFK and San Francisco or Los Angeles 2) Continental U.S. and Hawaii. So if you are kosher, gluten-free, vegan or need to watch your sodium or fat intake, United doesn’t seem to care much about your dietary restriction.

On my most recent domestic United Airlines flight from La Guardia Airport to Denver International Airport, the flight attendant offered either beef short ribs with mashed potatoes or cheese tortellini with marinara sauce. She said both came with veggies. Being a “mostly vegetarian,” I thought to myself “here we go again, another plate of cheesy pasta,” which is always the alternative dish on United’s domestic business class dinner flights.

Something unusual happened on this particular flight. The flight attendant put a tray in front of me and I noticed it was not what she had described. Instead of tortellini, the pasta was orange ravioli filled with a delicious squash puree. There were fresh chunks of squash and a warm marinara sauce served over the ravioli. A small salad of mixed baby greens, cucumber and tomato, and a roll accompanied the ravioli. Hmmm—I wondered why I had this more creative and nutritious ravioli in front of me. I was thrilled to see baby greens replace iceberg lettuce! Was this a glimpse of United’s promise to improve food for business class travelers? I noticed that a cloth was placed under the food, which made the tray feel clean and elegant. This was new for United. (Delta always places a cloth on the seat trays.) I thought to myself, “how about a fresh whole-grain dinner roll instead of this white roll that tastes like it’s pumped with dough softeners?”

I did enjoy the meal and as the second flight attendant came by to pick up my tray, I asked why the first flight attendant described the pasta dish wrongly. He said, “oh–there were just two servings of that squash ravioli onboard and it must have been a mistake made by foodservice. You were served that randomly.” I responded by praising the dinner and explained how pleasantly surprised I was to be served something other than cheese pasta.

In the world of foodservice, every food decision has implications. For example, back in the 1980s, the CEO of American Airlines decided to remove a single olive from every salad in order to save $40,000 per year thinking no one would miss one olive.

United Airlines—don’t make this a mistake. Please give us more veggies and less cheese in our pasta, fresh whole-grain rolls and swap the after-dinner cookies with fresh fruit. Special meal options may be asking too much but if Delta Airlines can do it, you can too!

To read more about how to dine out healthfully wherever you travel, pick up a copy of my book Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy.

Bon Appétit!