United’s New Three-Course Meal in Long Haul Coach Is a Great Idea… Or a Really Bad One

Let’s give United some real credit here. The airline has actually been doing a fair bit to try to upgrade its onboard product experience, and last week it made another good change. What’s really shocking is that while most service upgrades talk about the front cabin, this one is all about the back of the bus. The latest move is a . In coach. If this goes well, it will be a really nice upgraded experience, but it also has the potential to go very wrong.

Here’s exactly what’s happening. On all long haul flights (Transpacific, Transatlantic, and deep Latin America), the following will be the service standard starting June 1 in coach:

  • Beer and wine will now be free. This is how it used to be before purse-strings were tightened over the last decade. Liquor will still cost money. Each passenger will also get a bottle of water.
  • Meals will now be served in three courses with drinks and something like cheese and crackers coming first. Next is the salad and main course. Last is a dessert.
  • Paid snacks and snack boxes which are currently only offered on shorter haul flights will now be offered on long haul for people to purchase if they get hungry in between meals.

This is, without question, an improvement across the board. It’s interesting that free beer and wine is making a return. After all, it was only about a year ago that United started charging for beer and wine on Asia routes. But apparently it’s time for an about-face. Is this world-beating? Of course not. Some carriers, like Delta, give you the hard stuff for free too. But this is definitely an improvement from what United was doing before.

What I found most interesting, however, is the introduction of a three course meal. This is going to be three actual courses served at different times. This is where this gets risky. United is now putting more work on to its flight attendants, and it relies on them executing it well. It’s going to be the service delivery that makes or break this plan.

As far as I know today, the flight attendants come through with a drink and meal fairly close together. Then they come back and pick it up. The new flow is going to require more up and back for the flight attendants.

The drinks will still come out first, but now they’ll come with a little appetizer/snack thing. What does it look like? Behold…

United New Snack

Were you expecting a plated shrimp cocktail or something? It’s a nice little snack which will help bide the time until the full meal arrives. Nothing fancy, but hey, this is coach. After you’re done, the flight attendants will come through and pick up the trash and then bring the full meal out separately.

And what about that new main course? Well, a photo of this was tougher to track down. See, they didn’t really coordinate this announcement very well. They have pictures of the main course, but the PR team felt that the pictures weren’t good enough to release, so that photo above was the only one I could get from them. But then something funny happened. Apparently the sales team at United didn’t think the photos were bad, because they included one in an email that went out to all their agency clients. Here it is.

United Main Course

Looks like a coach meal to me. They used a bunch of fancy words to describe the meals in the release, but those always just seem fluffy. This looks like a regular coach meal, though clearly I have no idea how it tastes. Once this course is done, the flight attendants will come through again and collect the trays.

As for the last course, it’s dessert, and for that I have no photo. But it’ll be something like a cup of ice cream or gelato. Once that’s done, the flight attendants come back through one more time and collect it.

In short, his looks like a nicely upgraded service… if it’s done right. You can imagine a scenario where the flight attendants might not be fast enough to clear things because they have to do so many passes. Or it could be the opposite where they come through too quickly, though that seems less likely. It’s easier to coordinate good service when you have a much lower crew to passenger ratio in a smaller premium cabin. This is more of a challenge to do right and most importantly, to do consistently.

So how are the crews going to be trained on this? From a spokesperson…

To make a smooth transition for customers, we will work closely with our flight attendants to ensure they have the tools and resources they need to offer the new United Economy food and beverage service on long-haul international flights. We will provide flight attendants a video with comprehensive instructions on how to deliver the enhanced service and will also offer updated guides that show the new procedures, which include flight attendants making three separate passes through the aisles to deliver each course of the main meal.

A video and guides? Well, I guess we’ll see how this goes in practice. I like the idea, if it can be executed properly.

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