United, Seeking an Edge in First Class, Will Offer Free Meals on More Flights

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CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- United may recently have fallen behind rivals Delta and American in net income, but it is moving ahead in an area far more important to its premium passengers -- the availability of free meals in first class on domestic flights.

Currently, all three U.S. global airlines offer free first-class meals on flights of 900 miles or more, with free meals offered on shorter flights in a few select markets, generally business markets.

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However, United said Thursday that it will introduce premium cabin meals to shorter flights beginning in 2015, when it will launch redesigned menu concepts and expanded premium cabin meals on flights that are more than 800 miles, or two hours and 20 minutes.

"These changes mark the beginning of an extensive overhaul of our North America and international food service, offering travelers a level of service above that offered by our peers," said Lynda Coffman, United's vice president of food services, in a prepared statement.

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Possibly, United's move could trigger enhanced airline competition on premium food service, although most major airlines already engage in constant rejiggering of their food offerings.

United's announcement comes about two weeks after American tightened its first-class free-meal policy, effective Sept. 1. American said on Aug. 4 that it will discontinue first-class meals on most flights of less than two hours and 45 minutes. The change also applies to US Airways.

Delta's policy is to offer full meals on flights of 900 to 1,499 miles.

Besides reducing the length of flights where free food will be offered to first class passengers, United on Thursday unveiled new menus.

Among the changes affecting passengers flying in domestic first class and business class: Beginning this month, United will offer new premium salads. Beginning Sept. 1, it will offer premium sandwiches and wraps. Beginning this fall, it will offer Prosecco sparkling wine.

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Beginning in 2015, United will offer fresh meal options for premium-cabin customers flying on United Express.

Generally, coach passengers on domestic U.S. flights can buy snacks on board, although Delta and JetBlue offer free snack selections in coach.

Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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TheStreet Ratings team rates UNITED CONTINENTAL HLDGS INC as a Hold with a ratings score of C. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:

"We rate UNITED CONTINENTAL HLDGS INC (UAL) a HOLD. The primary factors that have impacted our rating are mixed ? some indicating strength, some showing weaknesses, with little evidence to justify the expectation of either a positive or negative performance for this stock relative to most other stocks. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its impressive record of earnings per share growth, revenue growth and notable return on equity. However, as a counter to these strengths, we also find weaknesses including generally higher debt management risk and poor profit margins."