Some details on updated catering changes for United premium cabins

As United Airlines moves to unify the service offerings between their two legacy operations there are only a few bits left to reconcile. One of those is the catering setup for long-haul flights, where the current service varies depending on which legacy carrier the route is operated by. Starting June 1 the new catering plans go into effect, with the goal of harmonizing the service across all premium cabins, regardless of whether it is operated by a legacy United or Continental aircraft. Alas, even the new plan isn’t quite so harmonized.

Business Class

On the plus side, the company appears to be migrating the legacy Continental BusinessFirst concept towards the legacy United side of things. This means expansion of the ice cream sundae cart and four entrée choices coming to all business class offerings (legacy United was only 3).

Still, depending on whether it is a 2-cabin or 3-cabin aircraft the service will differ. On a 2-cabin plane there will be a choice of appetizers offered and they will be served from a cart in the aisle per passenger request, separate from the salad course. On 3-cabin aircraft there will be only one appetizer and it is served on a tray along with the salad. In both cases the appetizers will only be cold offerings now in BusinessFirst.

At dessert time the 2-cabin aircraft will continue to serve the cheese course from the cart in the aisle while the 3-cabin aircraft will have the cheese pre-plated and served from the galley, and possibly fewer choices of cheese on the plate. Additionally, the petit fours are disappearing from BusinessFirst on 2-cabin aircraft for the dessert course.

Also of note is that the actual entrée choices being offered will be transitioning to those from the legacy Continental operation, at least in the European markets.

First Class

The new United Global First meal service is seeing a few tweaks as well. The overall six-course meal service will otherwise generally remain the same. Appetizers, however, will now be served from a cart in the aisle and there will be two hot choices for passengers to select from.

On 3-cabin flights it also appears that the actual entrée selections will be the same in Global First and BusinessFirst, further blurring the the lines between the two offerings. Dessert will still have more choices in Global First (petit fours along with the sundae) and the appetizers will be hot rather than cold. Plus there is a soup course. Definitely not an identical meal service but still very similar. For service to/from China the Global First cabin also gets cookies during the mid-flight snack while the BusinessFirst cabin does not.

Other bits

The company has decided to retire all of their patterned china; the new service will be from plain white dishes. Hard to know if that actually matters or not, but it is part of the update. Also, the company will be moving towards the legacy Continental glassware in the business class cabins. This includes the water, wine and cordial services. Also, and apparently this is a big deal. the company is shifting to using tongs rather than spoons for some portions of the service. Amazing, huh?

There are a number of matrices describing which routes and aircraft get which meal service, based on number of cabins, destination region and departure time. The charts are filled with tiny print over many pages. Needless to say figuring out what the meal is supposed to be isn’t a particularly trivial process.

Overall the idea of harmonizing the services is a good one. I probably would have taken a different tack in some of the choices, but I understand that there are limitations, both financial and practical, which preclude that in some cases. Making things more consistent for customers helps improve the ability to deliver the product. Alas, there are still going to be differences for the passengers depending on which type of aircraft they are on, among other things. Such is life, I suppose.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Thanks Seth.

    I wish they would adopt the same Economy class catering style they use to the Asian markets to everywhere else. It so vastly different.

    Good to see things are getting better on the old UA routes.

  2. Do you have access to these matrices? Could they be published? This is already very helpful, but the charts would be helpful, too.

  3. This pretty much explains why eagle-eyed observers like Joe Branatelli at have dubbed United the worst airline ever. Passengers expect a product sold to them as X to be delivered properly and consistently. United currently is not and does not even aspire to be a united carrier. So more and more travelers will book away. Especially the elite travelers booking in premium classes. They may not even realize they are booking away because the trivial stuff (and, let’s be honest, in the big picture, food is trivial) simply isn’t consistent. Consistent delivery of service and an easily defined service proposition is why Southwest (39 years) and JetBlue (10 years) make money while the legacy lines continue to destroy capital, lose market share and shrink into the past.

    1. @Kerwin: The sUA TPAC economy catering I had most recently was some of the absolute worst crap I’ve had on an airplane in a LONG time. The “chicken” was a reconstituted sponge of protein-ish mush that was absolutely disgusting. I hope that’s not what you’re hoping they choose. My understanding is that switching everything in economy to the sCO approach would have been a very costly proposition so they aren’t headed down that path right now.

      @Scotrick: AFAIK the matrices are internal-use only. 😉

      @WillyG: I’m afraid I don’t follow your train of thought here. Somehow we go from having slightly different meal service parameters in the two different BF configs to being the worst airline ever. I agree that the meal differences are annoying, but hardly to the point of worst carrier. I’d be much more worried about inconsistencies in the seat or ground services than whether I get my appetizers on a plate or from a cart. Maybe that’s just me though.

  4. Now I really hope my EWR-IST flight will be on a 2 cabin aircraft, not 3 🙁 The seat map is still showing 3-cabin aircraft.

    1. I, too, am hoping that it is 2-cabin by the time I fly the IST route. Unless, of course, they plan on Op-Up’ing me to First. 😉

  5. A 2-cabin from EWR to IST ? Ugh. What would that be ? A 757? Hopefully a sUA 3-class 767/777 !

  6. The route is switching to a 2-cabin 763 as soon as they have the aircraft available. United is convertng their domestic 763 “ghetto birds” to a 2-cabin config.

    Also, I’m not so sure what the compelling factor is for wanting the 3-cabin plane unless you plan on actually flying in F. The biz seats are wider in the 2-cabin config and the meal service is more robust. If I’m going to be seated in biz anyways I’ll take the best biz product they have to offer.

  7. I think the biggest thing I’ll miss from legacy CO in business class on both domestic and int’l flights is the soup, even if just in a demitasse. At least on the domestic dinner flights, I see this as a big step backward. I also miss cheeseburgers on transcon red eye flights.

    1. I agree that losing the soup in BF is a bummer; I have enjoyed many of them over the years.

      As for changes in the domestic catering stuff, I have not heard anything about that yet. I will share if I do.

  8. Forgot to ask–any changes to UA’s former BusinessFirst routes? My understanding is there is meal service now on CO legacy ORD-EWR flights, but not UA-operated ones (unlike LGA, where UA does serve meals to compete with DL and AA).

    Would love to see meals return from ORD to -DCA/-PHL/-BWI/-IAD

  9. Again, the changes seem like about 85% CO and 15% UA. Jeff just loves his CO brand which was never as rewarded as UA.

    1. In this case the changes are definitely biased towards the legacy CO product, Chuck. So what?

      It was the better product and the changes will result in better meals and more choices for just about everyone in a premium cabin. If that’s a bad decision then I’d hate to know what a good one is.

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