United Pilot Refuses to Fly until His Crew Meal is Loaded

Was it right for a United pilot to delay a three-hour domestic flight for more than 45 minutes because he did not get the crew meal he was expecting?

Flyertalker CaliC shares the following story:

So last week on 7/20/11, in the middle of my travels to start my vacation, I'm in seat 1A on UA 472 from DEN to TPA. Everyone is on board, we're about ready to go.

The catering people hand the FA a tray that apparently is the pilot's requested meal. Except the only thing on it is a green salad topped by grilled chicken. She shows it to the pilot who indicates to her that everything else is missing. The FA walks onto the jetway to talk to the catering dude.

Catering dude: "What's wrong with it?"
FA: "Well there's no bread, no dessert..."

(some talk I couldn't hear)

Then they come back onto the plane where Catering dude says "well what did he order?"

FA leans into cockpit and says to pilot, "What do you want?"

Catering dude gets attitude and says, "NO, what was he SUPPOSED to get?"

The gauntlett has now been thrown down. Pilot stands up and exits the plane and stands on the jetway. There is some discussion of the printout for catering. Apparently the grilled chicken salad printed at the bottom of one page, and no one noticed the rest of the meal was on the next page.

I start getting text updates on my phone in 15 minute increments that we are delayed for "aircraft servicing".

Copilot announces a slight delay for "a catering issue".

Pilot continues to stand on jetway with arms crossed. Occasionally he speaks to someone on the phone.

About 30 minutes in, the FA makes eye contact with me and she says quietly, "we should be on our way soon."

I respond, "I'll go back to the concourse and buy his dinner, what does he want?"

FA gets even closer to me and says, "The copilot already offered, it's a pissing match now."

The guy across the aisle leans in and says, "I'll chip in to buy, seriously."

Some people in suits come and talk to various people standing around, while the pilot ignores everyone.

Finally, a vehicle pulls up and two suits come up the stairs to the jetway, followed by a woman in a chef's hat and coat, carrying a full tray. Pilot sees them coming and gets back on the plane. Chef stops just inside plane with the tray, hands it to FA, who takes it to the pilot in the cockpit who apparently okay's it.

45 minutes have elapsed since we were ready to close the doors.

Assuming the story unfolded as it was shared, I certainly hold in contempt the rude caterer, who likely could have diffused the issue by apologizing to the Captain rather than acting snippy. But ultimately, I am very dissapointed in the Captain.

No doubt, his contract guarantees him a meal and with a long day of flying ahead, a meal is essential. Furthermore, if he was doing a quick turn at TPA, there might not have been time to load a meal for him. But how inconsiderate was it to hold up an aircraft full of people for 45 minutes because he did not get bread and a dessert with his salad? Whether it was a pride issue or simply a genuine matter of principle, it reflects poorly on the Captain and unfortunately poorly on United when he throws a temper tantrum and would not even let his First Officer buy him lunch in the concourse.

And we're talking about airline food! The Denver to Tampa flights offers fresh salads and sandwiches as well as snack boxes for sale in the back. Surely the Captain could have found something to augment his chicken salad...

What would have happened had he discovered the catering snafu in the air?

Maybe next time I don't get my first meal choice I'll ask for compensation...

United Cookie


Ted July 27, 2011 at 08:08 pm


Anononymous July 27, 2011 at 11:02 pm

It's the principle. Pilots are treated like garbage by airline management and even passegers these days. It's not the glamour prolegs public envisions.

Most pilots aren't gven time to even go buy a bag if fast good during their day. This guy was already better off than most with his salad, but I'm sure it was just the straw that broke the camels back after a bad day.

I suspect their union contract provides specifications for meals and requires them in certain circumstances (flights of a particular length, times of day, etc), so the airline would be responsible for delivering upon its contractual obligation.

In any sort of customer-oriented, non-organized labor situation, this employee (the pilot) should have been sacked.

To the comment that airline pilots are treated like garbage...then they should quit and go do something else! If you don't like your job, find a different one. Learn a new skill if need be.

Jan August 2, 2011 at 02:30 pm

I do understand the pilot and his contract may clearly state that he'll receive a meal of a certain type. On the other hand it again shows that two things make an airline go bankcrupt: fuel and pilots.

david December 22, 2011 at 10:03 pm

the author writes that he and a fellow passenger offered to buy the pilot a meal for the flight. it would take much less than that - only a penny or two per passenger. united airlines has been trying to "save" a buck or two on pilot crew meals ever since merging with CAL. so united pilots, who are accustomed having edible nutritious meals in accordance with the terms of their employment contract, have recently been experiencing many instances of inedible meals boarded - if boarded at all. if every passenger pitched in 2 or 3 cents per flight, united airlines could afford to board proper meals for its pilots. simple solution, no?

Mark Cousins September 23, 2012 at 03:11 am

I can understand the pilot's frustration, but as a professional he needs to suck it up and get on with the business at hand. Holding up a planeload of passengers (who may have connections or other time-sensitive obligations) is unacceptable, union contract notwithstanding. The OP mentions "quick turn" at TPA which means that this delay cascaded. At what cost, and at what inconvenience to those down the line?

I have many inconveniences in my work too, but I have to look at the bigger picture and do what's right overall. In the end, this will be the best strategy. Standing your ground on things such as this will only hurt you in the long run, I think.

Mark March 7, 2013 at 01:29 pm


Sorry you were delayed like that. My company does not serve dedicated "crew meals" like UAL, but we do get a choice of food in the back. Please don't think all pilots are that way. I certainly would never have delayed my guests for such a petty issue.

Fred March 8, 2013 at 09:58 am

While I can understand the Captain's frustration with an incomplete meal for many reasons, I would have hoped that his commitment to customer service and pride in his work would have superseded the frustration and inconvenience he felt. Simple as that.


Buffalo November 21, 2013 at 11:32 am

You people are so self-centered and myopic you are missing the point. Don't you realize that proper nutrition is critical to maintaining awareness and maximum safety? Don't you want your flight crew in the best shape possible? WHY do you think that crew meals are part of the contract - because crews love airline food? The crew meals are NOT provided on every leg - only at times when they will be needed and the crew doesn't have time to get their own nutrition.

Then add in the fact that UAL in trying to save a few pennies by suddenly not boarding meals or boarding incomplete/inedible meals is also setting themselves up to make that the new standard. If the crew regularly accepts this abrogation of their contract (and safety) THEN UAL uses that as a reason (it becomes accepted practice and the union loses any grievance filed) to make these New! Improved! meals the new standard.

You should see the hummus sandwich they try and force on the crews. It is DISGUSTING

This is just one issue among many - ask the crews about the changes in the hotels they stay at. Cheaper (and often late) transportation which cuts into required rest time, etc etc

But you are so self-centered and short sighted, and have no idea of the totality of the issues that the new UAL manglement is trying to get away with at its employees expense, you actually have the nerve accuse this pilot of a lack of professionalism. Really?

It would be unprofessional and unsafe for him to "suck it up" and fly hungry (and possibly in a state of low blood sugar). Can't you see that?

The entitlement mentality I see here, based on an incomplete and one-sided version of what is going on, is breathtaking.It is just me, me, me

@Buffalo: So dessert and bread are proper for maintaing safety? Or staying in good shape?

You sound like you are from the legacy UA side and I sympathize with the changes that have hit both crew and customer.

But I'm sorry--this was unprofessional. If blood sugar was the problem, you know there are plenty of sweets on the a la carte menu and note the date--this was June 2011 before the merger with Continental, so $misek was not auditing snack carts or forbidding comps.

And let's be fair--your Continental colleagues do stay at infeior hotels, but they are paid better and not forced to rest so long between flights, meaning more time with family/friends. Most CO folks I talk to vastly prefer their way of doing things to the old UA way.

That's not for me to decide, but to turn around the captain's hissy fit on the consumers who complain about a delay is why UA is ranked dead last in customer service. The motto: Fly the Unfriendly Skies: Screw the customer, I want my brownie!

Buffalo November 21, 2013 at 06:37 pm


First - UAL bought CAL in 2010 so it WAS under smisek

Second - It is unfair for you to characterize the actions as a "hissy fit". YOU have no idea how long they had been at work, what his hunger/blood sugar level was, what was going on. YOU have no idea what it is like working at a company that will note when employees waive their contractual rights and use it AGAINST them later on. It may have been ok for the crew to waive the meal issue in this case, but not next time. Do you work at a place that uses your attempts to help out against you later on?

You expect a cheap seat with first class service and crews to give up meals for your on time from a place that treats its employees like crapola.

I agree with you - UAL customer service stinks. I don't understand how manglement expects their employees to go the extra mile when they are constantly under attack from their supervisors, often for no other reason than to show them who is boss.

I am sure there was no desire to just screw the customers! pilots are paid to get the plane and people from point A to B as SAFELY as possible. On time if able, but safety first.

You want change? Change manglement at UAL

OBTW "sweets" are the WORST option. Spikes your blood sugar, then it plummets. Not good, especially if you are flying into bad weather or have an unexpected mechanical issue, etc. And before someone says they could wait, sometimes you are forced to hold for extended time or even divert to a place without food available. Then what?


Thanks for the follow-up. I think we are largely in agreement that management at United needs to change.

I'm a MMer flyer on legacy United and I proudly wore my "Glenn's Gotta Go" bracelet a FA gave me for over a year when I would travel on United. But looking back, I'd sure rather have Glenn then Jeff.

It is quite sad what he has done to this great airline and I know United will never be what it once was.

But my view remains unchanged--the pilot got mad at the caterer for being rude--this was not a management decision to cut dessert or bread from crew meals.

Buffalo November 21, 2013 at 09:39 pm


For the record I am not at UAL or CAL, or any other airline. But I was there. Before becoming an employee of UAL I was an anti-union republican. After working there I understood (and lived through)the need for unions - bad management. Managment that FORCED you to stand up for every little thing or they would take it.

Here is a real example - the contract specified 9 hours of rest (behind the hotel door) after a certain amount of flying. 9 hours meant get to the hotel, get into your room (clock starts), unpack some/get ready for bed - now sleep - then get up/shower/get dressed and eat to get downstairs for pick up. Not exactly liesurely, especially if you want to be properly fed and rested before taking 150-400 folks life into your hands. Often that 9 hour requirement would mean a late departure the next day. This 9 hour min could be waived, at crew discretion, down to 8 hours. Sometimes I would feel like 8 would be enough, but I found out that the company was tracking the number of 8 hour waivers IOT eliminate that provision from the contract. Once eliminated, if I felt 8 was not enough I would be forced to either fly tired or call fatigued, which triggers a ton of negative repercussions (and calls from the chief pilot). So the passengers the next day would be unhappy about the late departure, and some of those times we were forced into a no-win situation by the employee unfriendly tactics of bad management.

I appreciate your comments, and we are far more in agreement than it may seem. This one incident may be just as you characterize it - the pilot trying to show the caterer what was what and hurting the customers. If so, that is unfortunate.

That said, neither of us can know what else happened to him that day - he may have had to fight with the hotel for transpo to the airport, with dispatch over the fuel load, with payroll to get properly paid (yes, the "IT company that flies", as jeffy put it, can't pay their employees correctly, and it always seems to be less not more than they are owed), and the chief pilot over a sick call. When I say that the employees are under attack I did not mean that as hyperbole.

It is a service business, and service is bad. But ol jeffy seems to think the same way as glenn did when glenn said "morale is not my problem". So, according to harvard biz school you can abuse your employees and still expect them to serve with a smile. It is unrealistic. Yes, as professionals you would hope that was not the case, and most folks do well despite of all the BS manglement throws at them everyday, but not all do and not all of the time. In this case it was just the one pilot - but that was enough.

I am not exaggerating when I saw they are under attack - jeffy and his minions want to grind everyone into compliance. It is no wonder the front line folks are reacting the way they are.

Anyway, thank you for the response. I hope UAL re-emerges as the great company we once knew (and I worked for), but until the current group of harvard lawyers and cost cutters goes away it is highly unlikely...

Buffalo November 21, 2013 at 09:57 pm


Quick note - it WAS a conscious manglement decision to change crew meal quality, type and content (maybe not in 2011, but recently). Now they give the crews these boxes of (often spoiled) food, usually missing many items. The hummus sandwich example is not made up - it is disgusting and inedible. There is a fight over this contractual breech by management - the contract clearly spells out what is required, including each of the four food groups, amount, etc. First class meals fit the bill, but in a blatant power play the company has decided to disregard the contract even though before it happened the union spelled it out for them. A disgusting way to treat people - all to show them who was boss and save some nickles.

So the crews are forced to leave the jet to get some decent food, often making the flight delayed. Remember, crew meals are only required when there isn't time for the crew to grab food. But the customers only see that part, the pilots leaving the jet - not the blatant in-your-face violation by the company. Isn't it cheaper to board 2 extra first class meals and get an on time? yes, if you care about your customers and running a great airline. But if you are more interested in ego plays, well...

ok, maybe not such a quick note after all

ANON November 28, 2013 at 01:08 am

Just a quick note Continental bought United in 2010. United claimed bankruptcy & would not have been able to afford To buy Continental.

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