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No (Airline) Food For You

Carol Sottili

Starting Oct. 1, there will be no such thing as a free meal on United Airline's flights between Washington Dulles and Europe. The airline will become the first major carrier to start charging economy seat passengers for food on transatlantic flights (first and business-class passengers will continue to receive free meals).

There will be no hot meal option. Snack boxes, which contain food such as bagel chips, cheese, granola, juice, candy and a pastry, will be $6. Or you can pay $9 for a salad or sandwich. The $9 breakfast includes fruit, cheese, crackers, yogurt and pastry.

No word on why Dulles was picked for this experiment. Passengers on flights from other cities will continue, for the moment, to get a main meal of "salad, appetizer, a choice of hot entrees and dessert," plus a pre-arrival meal on longer flights.

No other airline has jumped on the bandwagon yet, although if the recent pattern re: fees for checked bags, seat assignments, etc., is an indication, it's only a matter of time.

Most foreign carriers are still very generous when it comes to food and drink on international flights. From Dulles, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Austrian Air and Air France are a few that offer free hot meals and alcohol. Most U.S. carriers still offer meals, but you pay for booze.

Is a free meal important on an international flight? Would it make you more likely to go with a foreign carrier if price is similar?

By Carol Sottili |  August 22, 2008; 11:07 AM ET  | Category:  Air Travel , Airline Industry , Airplanes , Carol Sottili , Dining , Europe
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Depends on the deal. If United, say, reduces prices (hah!) then maybe the trade off is worth while. If a foreign carrier comes in at roughtly the same price I would go with them instead.

Of course, if you get a code share flight opperated by United, well, sucks to be you I guess.

Posted by: EricS | August 22, 2008 12:05 PM

If the price is close to the same then foreign carrier it is. With long flights a hot meal goes a long way. And with departure delays it can increase the length.

Posted by: JimH | August 22, 2008 12:29 PM

We were so impressed by Austrian Air's meals and wine ... I would definitely choose them over United .. but then I often don't have the luxury of using them.

I know that the airlines are suffering but cutting out meals on transatlantic flights is a little bit over the edge.

Posted by: Peapod | August 22, 2008 12:36 PM

Actions like these will make the U.S. airlines less competitive with international airlines. You have to pay for a (cold) meal on a flight 7+ hours long?? The international airlines have much better amenities across the board even in economy for around the same money.

Posted by: Monique | August 22, 2008 12:41 PM

Oops, I wrote US Airways instead of United. Even more reason for me not to fly with them again to Europe. I just did so in July to London. The food wasn't as good and the movie system was antiquated compared to a Virgin Atlantic flight (which also served free wine) in February.

Posted by: Monique | August 22, 2008 12:44 PM

Unless the offerings are different than what is on the United website, they don't offer anything that a vegetarian or someone with religious dietary restrictions could eat. What are we supposed to do? Bring our own cold food? What happens in Frankfurt where they do a second screening and take all your liquids away at the gate with no place to buy them before boarding the plane?

Posted by: OTP | August 22, 2008 12:59 PM

It wouldn't be so bad if carry-on restrictions weren't so onerus. If I brought food from home, would TSA confiscate my travel packets of mustard & mayo? And it's not like you can bring anything that needs refrigeration. And buying food past security is a joke. Some of the terminals at Dulles are pretty slim in their food offerings (I always seem to get stuck at the old terminals on United's international flights).

Posted by: Dulles? Great. | August 22, 2008 1:28 PM

I'd definitely pick a foreign carrier with food over United, but I already prefer foreign carriers - in my experience, the service is better and I get off the plane happier (which is very important on a trans-oceanic flight). But yeah, what happens if you buy a ticket from one of United's partners and United ends up operating it?

Posted by: h3 | August 22, 2008 2:58 PM

This is crazy. When I fly them for work (have to use an American carrier), it's usually one leag of a 20-35 hr trip...and I'm not paying reduced fares for my economy seat. This is a joke. Watch me find some other airline.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 22, 2008 3:41 PM

I'm not sure I would pay an extra $25 for a ticket in order to get free airline lasagna or a bowl of week-old lettuce. I'm pretty much able to feed myself if given advanced notice and can back healthier food than the airlines usually provide. I'm of the theory that if the flight was a little cheaper, I could use the extra cash to go to a nice restaurant at my destination. I've never eaten any airline food that I thought was outstanding.

Posted by: Tom | August 22, 2008 5:51 PM

Last time on a plane I asked for a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off. She said no, and looked at me like I'm the crazy one, not her! Dumb plane.

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Airlines are getting ridiculous! No food on transocean flights is just the latest. Who wants to sit next to a person eating smelly food brought on board, or the messiness of all those paper wrappings. What if there is a long delay - are the diabetics going to go into diabetic comas for lack of food?

I fly foreign airlines and will continue to do so - forget American service, knowhow or ability - it is gone!

Posted by: Kaye | August 24, 2008 8:32 AM

I have celiac disease and need gluten free meals. There's only so much food I can carry onto a plane (especially with the liquid restrictions), and a bag of frozen peas only keeps things cold for so long. And when I'm coming home from an overseas trip, I've pretty much exhausted most of my food supply.
The "meals" they have available for purchase do not have the same options (gluten free, kosher, vegetarian, etc.) that the hot meals did. There's nothing I can eat! I would definitely choose an airline able to feed me over one that can't.

Posted by: Harrisburg, PA | August 25, 2008 9:56 AM

Especially given the carry-on restrictions, it would be difficult for me to carry enough food for a 7+ hour flight. The flight time could encompass two meals! If I had to pay $10 for a hot meal or two that would be okay, but not even having the option is terrible.

United and the other American carriers are really going to get caught flat-footed if they cut back all the amenities to save money and then oil prices drop. Bureaucratic inertia will make it hard for them to remove all these fees and inconveniences when the time comes. Meanwhile their competitors will sweep in and eat them for lunch on the international routes.

Posted by: William | August 25, 2008 12:52 PM

Where are they going to throw out those take out containers?

Posted by: DupontIAD | August 25, 2008 2:48 PM

Sometimes you pay more on foreign carriers, at least those not subsizied by their governments. I now live in northern Brazil, and would pay about $650 r.t. to fly to Sao Paulo, just 1500 miles away; about a 3 1/2 hour flight. Much more than for equivalent distance in the U.S. I could buy a lot of food with the difference. Airlines here used to give meals on domestic flights, but then cut back to small sandwiches, and now down to snack packs. But prices are still high.

Posted by: steve | August 25, 2008 2:51 PM

This is absolutely ridiculous! What are you supposed to do for the long-haul flights, like direct from Dulles to Dubai?? Its already a 13 to 14 hour flight, plus the 2 hours in the airport beforehand, assuming theres no delay. How could you possibly be expected to a. carry a full days worth of meals with you, with no refrigeration or microwave, or b. eat sandwiches and boxed meals for an entire days worth of flight time??

Posted by: MidEast | August 25, 2008 4:14 PM

The only time I flew on a U.S.-based airline to Europe was from Dulles to Rome last November (2007), because United was the only one flying that route. Even with the hot meal, the service wasn't even close to what Air France's was when I flew to from Dulles to Paris in 2006.

Never again will I fly a U.S.-based airline to Europe if I have the choice of a European one, regardless of the price difference. The food, flight attendants, plane, general flying experience and gate crew are all better on Virgin Airways, Air France, British Airways, etc.

Posted by: iad to europe | August 25, 2008 5:01 PM

I'll echo all the other comments here. Given the overly restrictive requirements for what you can carry onto a plane, how are you supposed to pack enough food for a transatlantic flight?

Posted by: Little Red | August 25, 2008 5:10 PM

It has always seemed to me that meal service on long flights serves two purposes- the obvious, and also to break up the time and keep passengers pacified. (or distracted, or entertained, or whatever) It also requires the flight attendants to interact with each passenger. I wonder if there will be any ripple effect from doing away with this?

Posted by: macha | August 25, 2008 5:28 PM

Ugh. What an awful idea. I recently flew United for an international trip, and the hot meals (the last ones I'll get, apparently) were pretty good. I'll probably stick with United anyway because Dulles makes it convenient for both domestic business trips and foreign leisure trips, and I like to accumulate miles with a single airline. But this definitely stinks. Options at Dulles for bringing your own can be terrible, depending on the terminal. (I once bought a sub for a transcontinental flight, only to discover on-board that the bun was moldy. I had to resort to the $5 United snack pack, which was OK but not as filling.)

Posted by: jane | August 25, 2008 5:58 PM

I can see a day when we are charged for everything when we use the skys as our long haul prefered means to and end.
Its only a matter of time before your intake of compressed air is metered and billed to your amex upon disenbarkment under the title "excess lungage"

Posted by: | August 26, 2008 4:48 PM

oh, United. You just keep on nickel and diming your passengers and see how many more you lose. Word of mouth hasn't been kind to this carrier, and I've avoided them like the plague EVEN when they (often) come up as the cheapest option from London to IAD. I fly this route frequently and will continue to pay a bit more for better service on British Airways or Virgin.

Yes, for those of you just making one journey as cheaply as possible, maybe this is an acceptable move for you. You can endure the random smell of McDonalds and stale fries around you for the sake of saving 25 bucks (which is nothing on this side of the pond- you'll not be having a good meal over here for that I promise) and possibly not be too put-out. And yes, even I, as cheap as I usually am, wouldn't mind maybe bringing my meal one way, but the return flight from a holiday destination is just not the moment when one wants to have to plan their meals in advance, as well.

Give me BA, with a dodgey but edible meal and a glass of wine or two to make it more palatable, any day of the week.

Posted by: expat in the UK | August 27, 2008 6:17 AM

We get less and less on our flights.

Egypt Air really shocked me-------during a little over an hour flight from Amman to Cairo, they served us a full course meal-served and cleaned up in time for landing. I returned to Amman about the dinnertime and again! A full course meal went with the flight! Granted, I did travel during the 5:00-7:00 dinner hour, but being about an hour flight--I was shocked!

Posted by: Channah | August 27, 2008 11:36 AM

I'm a veteran flight attendant for Continental Airlines. I can attest first-hand that we continue to offer FREE meal service in coach even in our domestic markets. We offer meals, sometimes hot- sometimes cold, at meal times every day, even on short 2hour flights, i.e. Houston to Atlanta. We have provided this meal service for at least the past 15years, even when times were tough enough that we had to sacrifice our paychecks to keep up our committment to service.
On an almost daily basis we have first-time customers who have chosen to fly us instead of their usual carriers and they tell us [me]they are pleasantly surprised to find that they are fed at no additional charge. The next compliment they offer is their surprise at our friendly service! When you compare fares, remember to compare services that are included in that price. Continental continues to exceed expectations....with a genuine smile.

Posted by: rdonal | August 27, 2008 12:59 PM

Continental continues to offer FREE meal service in coach even in domestic markets. They offer meals, sometimes hot- sometimes cold, at meal times every day, even on short 2hour flights, i.e. Houston to Atlanta. This meal service been provided at no charge for at least the past 15years, even when times were tough enough that employees had to sacrifice their paychecks to keep up Continentals' committment to service.
When you compare fares, remember to compare services that are included in that price.

Posted by: rdonal | August 27, 2008 1:07 PM

US Airlines are getting as bad as American beer. I'd take a foreign carrier anyday over an American carrier or beer for that matter!

Posted by: Kathy | August 27, 2008 2:47 PM

I am a vegetarian and have been bringing my own food on flights for 20+ years. I learned to do that because even when I made a vegetarian request it was often not remembered, and I could either accept the meat option (and eat around it) or go hungry. My friend and his young son were fying back to the East Coast from Australia(!) and the airline (don't know which one) had forgotten their vegatarian request. They were starving when they finally got back to Dulles. Many of us have learned the hard way to pack food in our carry on. That is mostly the bulk of my carry-on backpack!

Posted by: Learned the hard way | August 27, 2008 4:04 PM

I try to use foreign carriers whenever possible due to food and service! Do they think we are not human beings and just offer some horrible 'snacks' for extra $$ as an afterthought?? We are not even being treated as people, unless we are able to shell out big bucks for business/first class. Isn't most of the plane taken up by Economy Class?? I am able to pay a little more; but it is the attitude and service that bothers me. I don't eat the junk they are pedalling at home, why would I want their junk 'snacks' at a high price when on a long trip???

Posted by: TRISH | August 27, 2008 10:39 PM

With ridiculous fares like the recent "special fares" of $278 ticket + $478 taxes & fees = $756 per person, on Orbitz, who's going to the UK anyway? How do those taxes and fees get so high anyhow?

Posted by: Larry | August 28, 2008 4:29 PM

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