United Airlines: Why are Pre-Order Meals Out of Stock?

United Airlines: Why are Pre-Order Meals Out of Stock?

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In August 2022, United Airlines rolled out meal pre-orders to most premium cabin passengers (United Polaris, United First, United Business Class) on flights over 800 miles. That seems like it should be great news for several reasons:

  • Passengers get their first choice meal, improving their satisfaction with the flight and United
  • United is able to load the meals passengers actually want, leading to less food wasted
  • By tracking the more popular meal choices, over time United could alter its catering orders to better match expected passenger demand, even for those passengers who haven't placed meal pre-orders

Unfortunately, all that goes out the window based on our experience (admittedly just one data point so far). We received the following email today at 8:56am, with a link to the meal selection site:

“Hi there,

You can preorder from a variety of meals for your November 22 flight from [city] to [city]. View our meal selection to choose your preference* from the available options.

Choose your meal preference starting five days before your departure and up to 24 hours before your flight. If you don’t want to choose a meal right now, you can let us know what you’d like to eat when you’re on board.

Thank you for flying with United.”

*After you choose your preference, we’ll do our best to reserve it for your flight. We try to serve you the meal you chose, but we can’t guarantee it since availability may change. If you choose a meal and then decide that you’d like something different, we’re happy to offer other meal options on board.

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At 9:35am, a little over half an hour later, I went to the site and selected the egg dish for my husband. But when I attempted to select the same dish for my teen, I got the error message “Out of stock (may still be available on flight).”

United Airlines: Why are Pre-Order Meals Out of Stock?

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What is the point of offering meal pre-ordering if you're going to frustrate passengers who go online minutes after you email them about choosing their meal, only to tell them there is no choice after all? In our view, if you're ordering prior to the deadline (24 hours prior to the flight) there shouldn't be an out of stock message at all: if there is, the airline and/or its catering is doing something wrong.

Cynically, I suspect this has to do with cost cutting. While no one has ever accused United Airlines of serving fine cuisine (more commenters seem to equate it with prison food) I suspect the egg dish costs a few cents more to make than French toast, so United has decided to limit the number of egg dishes it loads.

The result? We ordered a Kosher special meal.

Have you had a similarly frustrating experience with United Airlines' meal pre-ordering?

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