As most of you probably know, United has stopped providing “real” meals in business class as of October 1 domestically, and will instead be providing free buy on board items along with free booze. Many aren’t too pleased with this change, along with reader Robert, who shares some firsthand experiences from his recent flights:
I want to share with you my impressions of the UA FA (flight attendant) service and food in C (business) which became effective October 1. As you know, UA management has decided to cut back to the minimum FA staffing requirements on its flights, and has also cut back on food service in domestic business on 3-class aircraft. Specifically, no hot meals are served in business during the lunch and dinner periods. The choices for lunch and dinner are the same fresh BOB (buy on board) items offered in coach. My flights occurred on Oct 2nd and 4th on flights #902 and #903 which are the internationally configured 777s servicing MUC-IAD-DEN and return. I flew the IAD-DEN segment (a dinner flight) on the 2nd and the return segment (a lunch flight) on the 4th. On the outbound, the FA staffing was indeed at a minimum as it appeared that there were only 2 FA in all of business. As far as I could tell, no coats were taken to be hung. Pre-departure drinks (usual water or OJ) were served very close to push back. The most astonishing difference, however, was in the food service. On this flight, no warm nuts were offered and no linen provided on the trays. The fresh BOB items were chicken cesear salad or turkey wrap sandwich. In my particular case, because I was seated near the back of C, by the time the FA arrived at my seat the only fresh BOB available was the sandwich. The salad offering was depleted and I have to assume that it was also depleted in Y as well as the FA did not offer to get one from Y (coach). For those passengers that requested an additional fresh item, the FA offered and provided one snack box. To make matters worse, the C passengers behind me were only offered the BOB snack boxes as the fresh items were entirely depleted! Dessert was a chocolate chip cookie. The expression on the passenger’s faces and the vocal disapproval by many told the whole story. “What kind of cheap airline is this” and “I paid business class for this?” I was not paying enough attention to notice whether the food service started in C and then continued into Y, or whether the services occurred simultaneously. As is typical following the meal service, the FAs disappear into the galley(s) and are not seen for some period of time but do eventually make rounds to offer additional drinks. On this flight, I had to walk to the galley to request a drink. One could argue that this situation is normal, but also could be due to reduced staffing.
On the return, it again appeared only 2 FA worked the C cabin. Again, no coats hung but pre-departure drinks offered. The same fresh items were available. This time it appeared there were enough fresh items loaded for C, but I could not tell whether everyone got his/her first choice as I was seated in the middle of C. Again, as the FAs made their way down the aisle, you could hear the audible passenger disgust with the meager and, quite frankly, unimaginative food offerings. No dessert provided.
So, with a n=2 sampling, I would say that the FA personal attention factor has declined and the food service has spiraled downward faster than the US stockmarket. What have I learned from this experience, you might ask?
1) What is the purpose of purchasing or upgrading to domestic C if the soft product is not distinguishable from coach? In C, yea, there is the better seat (but 21 HJ is equally comfortable on the 777; 16 C/D on the 757, etc) and free alcohol (but who can drink that much anyway) so the perceived added-value of C (whether by expenditure of paid C, paid upgrade to C, or an upgrade instrument) doesn’t seem worth it anymore.
2) UA wants to be competitive in the international long-haul market with re-designed F and C cabins, but once the C passenger hits US soil, the C service drops precipitously. What is the international passenger’s motivation for booking these C domestic legs with 3-class cabins? Why not commence on the outbound or connect on the inbound to F on a 2-class plane? Why not use a foreign carrier altogether and connect to domestic F on its partner/code share?
3) For the remainder of ’08, I will now attempt to book mid-con and transcon 2-class flights where it should be possible to get a hot meal in F, and more attention due to the smaller F cabin.
4) Most importantly, as my travel requirements will slightly change in 2009, I am now looking at Delta as my principal carrier. After a long and pleasant relationship with UA – now 500k miles flown and multiple consecutive years of Premier Executive status, I strongly feel it is time to re-evaluate and possibly move my business travel to another airline. What really tipped the balance for me to look at other FF programs has been the prolonged and now recent decline in service in addition to other customer service problems.
Thanks for letting me share these thoughts with you.
A good point that I hadn’t previously considered is the amount of premium connecting traffic. As an upgrader I still find the upgrade worth it, but considering how UA has cut back quite a bit on Europe to West Coast flights, you’re basically forced to fly via IAD or ORD to connect, and fortunately they usually have three cabin aircraft, which should in theory make the connection tolerable. Of course when you’re flying paid business and they drop a snackbox in front of you, well, that’s just low….
Thanks again to Robert for sending in his thoughts.