United Gets a Spice Weasel

The food that United Airlines serves in domestic first class has been on life support for a long time – or should I say the passengers who eat the food are on life support?

I am a man of simple pleasures. Give me friendly employees and good food and beverage service, and I won’t care quite as much whether you charge the best price or get me there on time. Good food and service are two reasons I like staying at Hyatt (they excel at a lot of other stuff, too), and they were reasons I considered changing my loyalty to American Airlines.

My status match didn’t work out with American for logistical reasons, but something I took away from my few flights with them and the numerous pictures on the Internet is that their food is pretty good, as far as domestic airline food goes. The dry air makes it difficult to taste, so most caterers add extra spices. American is smart, and many photos I’ve seen of their meal service include salsa.

All United offered for a long time is “Real Ancho Chipotle Sauce & Condiment” if you were unlucky enough to get the chicken burrito. The quotation marks are required by a government regulation that must exist somewhere. A mayonnaise company makes it. It tastes about the same as mayonnaise. Maybe worse. I still haven’t decided if the chicken burrito tastes better with or without it. What United needed is a spice weasel.

Something New in the Air

On my recent trip to Miami, I was originally going to refuse the redeye snack plate but relented when flight attendant said it had grilled chicken. Okay, something new. Not only was there grilled chicken, but also grilled corn, tortilla chips, and a big honkin’ bowl of salsa! I almost yelled out “Yes!” while half the cabin was sleeping.

picture of airline snack plate

My return flight from Miami to Newark during lunch did not have salsa, but I did get an improvement over the chicken burrito. This time I had a beef burrito. Still served with the “Sauce & Condiment,” it had enough taste by itself that I was able to eat it alone. You could see real beef inside, too. United has typically had excellent soup, and in this case it was cream of asparagus. I was pretty satisfied and also tried out a Scotch and Diet Coke, which has become a new favorite.

(I’ve taken to replacing whisky in all my cocktails with Scotch because the whisky is just too sweet. The Dewar’s that United serves is still second-rate, although the flight attendant volunteered an apology that they didn’t have Glenlivet. Maybe she’s used to international catering.)

picture of airline burrito plate

Waiting for my final leg to Seattle, I was chatting with people on Twitter and someone made a comment about steak on a domestic flight. Really? Not just beef, but beef in the form of a solid piece of meat? That sounds like international BusinessFirst fare to me.

Low and behold I got a short rib in United’s domestic first class! It was served with broccoli, carrots, and mashed potatoes, and even a small dish of gravy. The broccoli and gravy didn’t hold up so well to reheating, but the rest of the meal was probably the best food I have ever eaten on a United flight. Amol had a similar experience on a recent Delta flight, though as a premium route between JFK and LAX I think his might still be better. I have yet to fly on one of United’s p.s. routes.

picture of airline salad

picture of airline dinner

And then I finished with a sundae. American did it first, but I don’t mind. Using whole walnuts is a nice touch, as I can easily see an airline choosing itty bitty almond slivers. I told the flight attendant to hold the fruit, just like Felix Leiter. ;)

picture of airline sundae

The February issue of Hemispheres has several letters from company officials talking about the importance of customer service, even one from Executive Chef Gerry McLoughlin. I recall a recent episode of Top Chef Seattle where the judges mentioned that they would visit a new restaurant for the food but return for the service. Loyalty to an airline has some similarities in that I may try out a carrier for a fancy seat or in-flight entertainment, but one-off attempts to best the competition won’t hold me unless they can offer a better holistic experience.

If United keeps up this trend, completing the rollout of EconomyPlus and adding satellite-based WiFi, I won’t have anything to complain about anymore. Maybe. I still have yet to see the new United Club concept in person…

Scott created Hack My Trip after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • oneeyejack

    had the same meal, braised short ribs, on a recent SFO-BOS flight.

  • eastbaybud

    Had the ribs on my 787 IAH-SFO and they were great! Even after having to delaying being served for about 30 minutes because power went out on seats and entertainment and my seat was fully flat when it happened.

  • Andrew

    Delta’s “steak” is a complete hit or miss, last two flights I’ve had it it was a total miss. Best thing an airline can offer is short ribs. Harder to screw up and usually more moist.

  • Dad

    Scotch and Coke?? Are you really my son?

    • Scottrick

      Dewar’s and Coke. I drink Glenlivet neat.

  • AKold

    I just got the Futurama reference.