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How the In-Flight Cookie Crumbles
August 30, 2007 -- You have been filling my E-mail box in recent weeks with what is literally a tiny complaint: United Airlines has reduced the size of its in-flight packets of Biscoff Biscuits to half an ounce. Until this month, the admittedly tasty Belgian cookie that United distributes to a select few on selected flights came in packets that weighted .9 ounces.
Isn't that sad?
Not sad that United Airlines has halved the size of its biscuits. What, after all, did you expect from an airline that needs to save a few hundred thousand dollars in cookie costs so that its chief executive can earn 39 million clams a year?
No, fellow travelers, what's sad is that so many of you noticed the shrinkage of the sweets. We've lost so much so fast on the Big Six that the disappearance of a few cookie crumbs is worthy of discussion. Picayune as the complaint is--I felt, well, crummy, having to ask an old friend at United about the issue--it is indicative of how the mighty have fallen.
Even weirder, it turns out that I have the ability to help track the decline of the Big Six by tracking how United Airlines has served up in-flight gruel over the years. Believe me when I tell you that what I am about to relate is not really about United. It's about the experience on the Big Six in general. It just happens to be all about United, but the story wouldn't be all that much different if we were talking about American or Delta or Northwest or Continental or US Airways.
Come with me now to December, 1985, just a few years into the deregulated airline world. After wowing them with cover stories on the state of personal technology in 1983 and the state of the business traveler and telecommunications in 1984, the editors at Frequent Flyer magazine assigned me to my first-ever airline-industry cover story: The State of First Class. I covered all of the angles, including a story on the state of first-class cuisine.
Here's how I started the food portion:
On a recent United transcontinental flight, John McKeown was leaning back in his first-class window seat and scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad. A flight attendant came by and offered him a menu. McKeown straightened up, took the menu and perused it carefully.
"Look at this," he said, nudging the elbow of the somewhat bedraggled stranger sitting on the aisle. "Can you believe it?"
The stranger looked blankly at the menu and then at McKeown.
"Don't you see?" McKeown asked. "Look at the entree! It's choice beef. They're serving choice beef instead of prime! In first class! Can you believe they're serving us a cheaper cut of meat considering what we're paying in first class?"
Skip ahead to late 1990. I'm now the executive editor of Frequent Flyer and United's new marketing wizard, Adam Aron, has flown to New York to schmooze with his old buddy, editor and publisher Martin Deutsch. But Aron also makes his way down to my office, plops himself down in a chair, opens his briefcase and pulls out a carton.
"Isn't it cool?" Aron asks me. "It's going to change food service in coach."
I stare at the carton blankly. (I often have a blank look when people talk about in-flight food.)
"Adam," I remember saying, "it's a McDonald's Happy Meal."
"No, it's not," he says cheerily. "It's a United McDonald's Happy Meal. We're going to have it as a menu item for kids on a lot of our flights. And let me tell you, it was hard to pull off. McDonald's had to re-formulate the cheese on the burger to make it melt properly at altitude."
Now we jump forward to late in 1993. I've left Frequent Flyer and my wife and I are celebrating my new-found freedom with a trip to London. We book passage on United's relatively new Connoisseur Class, the name the airline used for its business class.
The dinner menu on the Kennedy-to-Heathrow flight didn't offer prime or choice beef, but a loin of veal. Alternately, your entree choice was a seafood timbale or the Connoisseur Selection: a grilled chicken breast. Along with your menu, came a wine list: a choice of Champagne (Louis Roederer Brut Premier or Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut); white wine (Chardonnay from France or the Sonoma Valley or a 1988 Riesling); or red wine (a 1987 St. Emilion or a 1987 Cabernet). The dessert (a cheese plate, a banana split or Godiva chocolate) was offered with Cockburn's Special Reserve Port.
And now to this past April. I'm flying transcon on United Airlines again, this time between New York and San Francisco on its p.s. service. P.S., as you know, is United's purported premium service. Its specially configured Boeing 757s offer the airline's outdated--but comfortable--international first-class seatbeds, a version of its international business class and United Economy Plus.
But since p.s. service was launched in 2004, United has consistently hacked away at the in-flight amenities. For instance, breakfast is no longer served to Economy Plus passengers. Instead, we are offered a coffee and a packet of Biscoff Biscuits. The .9 ounce size.
As of this month, of course, Economy Plus passengers on United p.s., its premier domestic service, now get a .5 ounce packet of Biscoff biscuits for breakfast.
By the way, I checked on the retail price of the Biscoff two-packs as distributed by United. They cost 26.9 cents a unit.
We've come an awfully long way since that guy was complaining about the loss of prime beef in first, haven't we?
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