Wednesday, September 16, 2015

United Airlines brought back free wine and beer because it had to

Food on United international, in coach. Photo Jonathan Bourne
United Airlines quietly brought back free wine and beer on international flights earlier this year. It's a good sign that civilization is still possible in the United States.

United did not do this for philosophical reasons, not the way Qantas and Air New Zealand serve their country's wines because it's the right thing to do. United wouldn't give you free toilet paper if they thought they could get away with it; in fact, United has beta-tested that idea.

No, United had to bring back free beer and wine on flights to Europe and Asia because Europeans and Asians consider it part of a meal. This cultural difference was costing the U.S. airlines business. First Delta brought back free wine, then American Airlines. United was the last holdout.

Almost every American, even those who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, is willing to accept alcohol being classified as a luxury product, because that's what our culture teaches us.

From the 21-year-old drinking age -- perhaps our single stupidest law, given the legal ages for marrying or joining the military -- to continuing shipping restrictions, our culture teaches us that wine and beer are health and civil hazards to be managed, not agricultural gifts from God to be savored.

I heard occasional snark from my fellow Americans on international flights when US airlines started charging for wine and beer, but no more than that. Nobody said, "But that's wrong." I did hear that tone from Europeans and Japanese. "You charge for wine? With dinner?"

Honestly, one reason I booked Lufthansa, Air France, etc., to Europe as often as I could was because a plastic cup (better yet, two!) of wine on a long plane flight makes dinner more civilized and the whole experience less stressful. American travel writers often write silly advice columns suggesting that we not drink on planes because it's dehydrating. Drink more water, silly! That's such an American thing: go ahead and eat the useless calories of the cement-like roll and the candy bar for dessert, but don't drink wine, it's bad for you.

Which of these flights has good food? Good luck!
I could have bought wine on United. I don't mind spending money for a bottle of wine and could have just considered it part of the cost of travel. But I won't spend money on crappy wine, and that's all they had. It was a double insult: you had to pay, and it was terrible.

The wine they serve now for free on international flights is actually better than the overly sweet swill they sold for $7 a 175-ml bottle (or in the case of Meiomi Pinot Noir, $15). The first United flight I boarded with free wine had two large 1.5-liter boxes from California. I tried the Chardonnay, and it was passable. Last month on United I had an Alexis Lichine -- he of the trendy rosé -- Merlot from the south of France, also passable, and a southern French white blend that wasn't bad at all. They also came in 1.5-liter packages, this time plastic bottles.

I'll bet United isn't paying more for the wine than it is for orange or tomato juice, which customers would have instead. And that's fine. There's a lot of passable cheap wine in the world, especially when you get rid of the foolish notion that it must be contained in a glass bottle with a cork. I've had box wines that would be excellent on an airplane. We don't need Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir back in steerage. We just need something that isn't terrible, and with modern wine technology and hygiene, that isn't hard to find.

United still clearly doesn't understand where wine fits in a meal. Its inflight magazine has a back-page description about how your meal starts with wine (free!) and a "wine-friendly snack," usually cream cheese and crackers. Then you get a meal, and United seems to think you'll have tomato juice with it. They must have been surprised when customers asked for ANOTHER glass of wine, and I'm sure corporate headquarters kicked around whether giving people a second glass after their "wine-friendly snack" would expose them to liability of promoting alcoholism.

Fortunately, competitive practices won that argument, and we can have a second glass of wine. I've even had a third! When I next fly United internationally, I'll raise a glass beside my chicken surprise to toast recent ex-United CEO Jeff Smisek and wish for him to receive the shortest prison sentence possible (though a little time in the joint, especially if he gets medium-security, will make him understand what it's like in coach class). Viva United!

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  1. My best friend out of SeaTac airport is Vino Volo. I always grab a couple of half bottles with screw caps when I have to sit in Economy for a flight to Europe...

  2. The good ol' days of air travel . . .

    1999: "Some passengers rebel with meals of their own."

    2003: "Corkscrew meets metal detector."

  3. I recently took a one hour flight in coach from Colombia to Panama and was shocked when they not only served a meal but rolled out a full bar with 3 wine choices (in glass 750ml) and full size liquor bottles for cocktails (all free). The same length flight here on United and they say there is not possibly enough time to serve anything but water.

    I also just wrote an executive at one of the US legacy carries and asked why they serve so few American wines on their planes and here is the response: "While I respect your opinion regarding domestic wines being American wines, being a global carrier, that approach would not support our efforts to build our brand beyond that of a US centric carrier."