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United Airlines

United Airlines to Cut Back Service and Trim Crew on International Routes

United Airlines to Cut Back Service and Trim Crew on International Routes
Jeff Edwards

After United Airlines Senior Vice President of Inflight Services John Slater announced plans to fly some international routes with fewer flight attendants on board in a memo to employees, cabin crew members wasted little time publicly pointing out that the cost-saving measure will negatively affect passenger safety and lead to a dramatic decline in inflight service.

United Airlines Senior VP of Flight Services John Slater started his recent communication with flight attendants by praising cabin crew members for stepping up and making strides to improve inflight customer service. Slater also thanked employees for feedback that led to increased efficiency including doing more catering prep work on the ground and simplifying the Polaris Class cocktail program.

Related: United Announces Club Access Restrictions

Then, in pitch perfect corporate parlance, the airline executive quickly segued to explaining how those laudable extra efforts will result in extra work and fewer crew members on some future flights.

“Those were important steps, but there is more work to do,” Slater wrote in part. “That’s why, starting February 1, 2019, we will begin repacking galleys and our catering team will plate entrées ahead of time, further speeding up the meal service and eliminating the need for the mid-galley position on certain international wide-body flights … Based on the conversations I’ve had with many of you who regularly bid the international premium cabin, I know this is difficult news. However, this is a necessary step for us to stay competitive and continue growing.”

Terming the announcement “difficult news” may have been something of an understatement. Flight attendants didn’t waste any time at all pointing out that the reduction will negatively impact passenger safety as well as reducing the time cabin crew members have to tend to passengers’ comfort.

AFA United Master Executive Council President Ken Diaz, who represents United Airlines flight attendants, summarized the announcement as “Great Job! Now here’s your punishment.” He vowed “to out the real reason for diminished service: Short-term gain for Wall Street with billions in stock buybacks funded on our backs.” Diaz indicated that the plan to eliminate an economy class flight attendant is a classic case of being pennywise and pound foolish.

“Staffing is about safety and service – we can’t accept the lowest level in either case,” Diaz wrote in response to United’s announcement. “We need to stand up for the resources and tools we need to interact successfully with the passengers who are paying all of our salaries. These staffing levels do not give us the people resources we need to develop the relationships with passengers that will encourage them to choose to fly United Airlines – in good times and in bad. While management may view these positions as a “service role”, we know that having the right Flight Attendant staffing allows us to board faster, deescalate situations proactively and to respond effectively in those situations where the investment in our training really pays off.”

According to Slater, however, the move to eliminate a single cabin crew member for some international routes will simply mean matching the staffing levels of American Airlines and Delta Airlines on their Boeing 777, 767 and 757 long-haul routes. He noted that increased efficiency such as this in one area will allow the company to hire as many as 2,000 new cabin crew members over the next year.


Join the FlyerTalk on the topic in this forum thread.

View Comments (17)


  1. cairns

    November 6, 2018 at 3:42 pm

    This is just part of Oscar’s “de-stressing the travel lifestyle”.

  2. flying_geek

    November 7, 2018 at 4:50 am

    Faux News. How can United’s service possibly get any worse?

  3. BeanTownBoy

    November 7, 2018 at 7:39 am

    I am confused: how will this allow hiring 2,000 more crew members?

  4. chadbag

    November 7, 2018 at 7:58 am

    Just one more reason why United is usually the last on my list to fly internationally. I’ve flown United to Tokyo twice, and both times were not pleasant. Miniscule seats, packed like sardines, IFE (the new streaming BYOD kind) did not have enough capacity for the passengers, etc.

    Now I try and choose international airlines (or domestic that are codeshare and flown by international airlines). Much better service: better planes, better seats, better food, better service. Usually price is as good or better. Already have a flight to Tokyo scheduled for this summer on Singapore.

  5. mikel51

    November 7, 2018 at 8:43 am

    It already takes forever to get drinks and food after takeoff when flying Polaris. UA should work on bring out the first drinks much faster rather than cutting back.

  6. CesarFrancq

    November 7, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Maybe United should be kicked off Star Alliance…

  7. SFO-SSA

    November 7, 2018 at 9:26 am

    United’s already mediocre product will get even more mediocre.

  8. Thunderroad

    November 7, 2018 at 9:42 am

    My memories of United as a decent airline are fading…I can’t even recall exactly when my 20 years of 1K status and commensurate spending on mainly international business class came to an end. It’s now the place where I’ll very occasionally burn miles or take a $120 short-hop, perhaps every other year. My sympathies to those who still have to deal with it.

  9. christfield

    November 7, 2018 at 9:58 am

    United should just exit the international business. The shrive is terrible compared to their international competition.

    I would much prefer to fly ANA business class rather than United First class. ANA shrive friendly helpful and customer orientated: United why are you here,. And the attitude starts at the top.

    And that is competing with ANA, United can’t hold a candle to the middle east carriers as their completion amounts to whining to the US government about “unfair” subsidies.

    Unless there is a complete culture change at UA I can’t see them every competing.

  10. 2old4coach

    November 7, 2018 at 10:09 am

    United is “enhancing” us again. I am glad I read this post. I was looking to trying Polaris as I have read many good things about the service. Perhaps the most expensive Business class res I have ever made. Almost $5000. per person.
    I just cancelled that reservation SFO-PPT ( happy I had Fare Lock).
    Why pay for United going through more growing pains at our expense.

  11. jrpallante

    November 7, 2018 at 10:42 am

    I don’t understand why everybody on this site loves to complain about United. I fly all the domestic airlines on a regular basis, and I find them to be completely indistinguishable. Of course UA’s economy seats are tiny, just like EVERY OTHER AIRLINE. It was nice to read today about Delta’s new A220 with 18.3″ seats, but everywhere else you are going to get 17.0″ to 17.5″. That is sad, but it is not unique to United. Fortunately, I only fly biz class internationally, and I have been pleased with the Polaris seats on the 777 and the Dreamliner seats. As for eliminating one FA on the long hauls, I think many flights are overstaffed, as evidenced by the fact that the FA’s are able to congregate in the galleys for extended gab sessions throughout the flight. If UA can implement some simple changes to speed up the food service, as was proposed, I have no problem eliminating an FA. Of course the union will say this is threatening passenger safety, but does anybody really believe the FAs have anything to do with safety? I can buckle the seat belt all by myself.

  12. knadai

    November 7, 2018 at 11:56 am

    “He noted that increased efficiency such as this in one area will allow the company to hire as many as 2,000 new cabin crew members over the next year.”

    Cutting back on cabin crew members in order to save money so they can hire more cabin crew members. Makes perfect sense. Not.

    Polaris is lipstick on United’s pig of a product. Cutting back before it’s even completely rolled out!

    I justified sticking with United for international travel in order to get upgrades for my domestic trips. Now that those are much less common for me, I am looking toward a foreign carrier.

  13. NarcissusNoir

    November 7, 2018 at 12:20 pm

    In reply to jrpallante’s “ As for eliminating one FA on the long hauls, I think many flights are overstaffed, as evidenced by the fact that the FA’s are able to congregate in the galleys for extended gab sessions throughout the flight. If UA can implement some simple changes to speed up the food service, as was proposed, I have no problem eliminating an FA. Of course the union will say this is threatening passenger safety, but does anybody really believe the FAs have anything to do with safety? I can buckle the seat belt all by myself.”

    It shows that you are speaking on things you are absolutely not privy to. It would be interesting to see your assessment change after actually working a flight that’s going out understaffed. When you see flight attendants “congregating in the galleys for extending gab sessions” – let me know if that happens during the middle of a service. Asbsolutely not. But on a 10 hour flight, between services, please do tell me why seeing a flight attendant behave as a human during downtime and chat with coworkers? Have you ever been chatting at work during downtime, and did that downtime undermine your role or necessity at work? What you said is like comparing apples and horses. Makes zero sense. Funny that you want a change for speed of service, yet you’re on board with and find nothing wrong with eliminating an extra working body. News flash: they’re eliminating a midgalley position which is a pivotal position in implementing an errifient and quick service, and united thinks because hot meals will come pre-plated, that will solve anything. All that means is that your food will come with all the sauces dried and spilled and dry on the plate. Without the midgalley position – who will be there during boarding to prep for the service in the air? Now the paramount duties that the midgalley position is responsible for (unwrapping appetizers so they’re ready to go asap in the air, preparing the drink cart, etc) must be completed IN THE AIR, meaning an even slower and less efficient service for you.. when all you want is a quicker service, yet you’re here lobbying for less flight attendants because you feel that after their service duties are completed, they shouldn’t be permitted to speak with one another during downtimes.

    Regarding your question, does anybody believe fa’s have anything to do with safety — ask children that have been saved from human trafficking thanks to the work of attentive flight attendants during the boarding process. Ask the women that have found themselves giving birth in the air successfully thanks to support and proper training of the crew. Ask the numerous passengers that have been through evacuations that were able to be completed in 90 seconds or less thanks to the proper training and safety knowledge of the crew to know which exits were usable and weren’t (think: the passenger that opened the aft door on the US airways hudson flight causing it to sink quicker) and able to open the exit doors to deploy slides for a majority of passengers that have trouble opening a lavatory door. Yes, you roll your eyes because the flight attendants have to demonstrate how to buckle a seatbelt, but there are people on planes that are flying that sometimes come from developed countries where there aren’t cars and have no idea what a seatbelt is, so federal law mandates that the airline must demonstrate this. You don’t know what goes on behind the scenes and what roles a flight attendant plays in safety, it’s great that you can manage to put your seatbelt on, but that doesn’t undermine the safety role of a flight attendant. Again, try not to speak on things that are evidently far from privy to.

  14. Surfwriter

    November 7, 2018 at 3:58 pm

    As I stated in an earlier discussion about United’s cutbacks and attempts to sugar coat them, we’ve already instructed our agent to avoid booking us on United unless there is no alternative – even though United partners with airlines we do use. Poor service and cutbacks aside, how can we trust an airline that comes up with nonsense like this and further insults their customers’ intelligence with the CEO’s corporate obfuscation regarding the increase of luggage charges. Talk about adding insult to injury. United’s executives operate in an alternative universe I don’t want to visit.

  15. MrLee

    November 8, 2018 at 1:24 am

    NarcissusNoir – You’re the real MVP. jrpallante probably has more money than sense.

  16. topman

    November 8, 2018 at 10:57 am

    Based on the crap being spewed by the CEOs of the US Carriers, I fully support the ME3 carriers flying domestic routes. In the past few weeks Oscar said.
    1. We are going to increase your baggage fees to make your experience better. Total BS
    2. We are reducing inflight staff to streamline with other carriers. DL 777 seating in Y is 3-3-3 with UA being 3-4-3. AA has 3-4-3 and we know where they are on the pole. Basically a race to the bottom.
    I am quite sure Oscar’s days are numbered at UA. Sadly it will only get worse when Kirby takes over.

  17. BiPlane

    November 16, 2018 at 4:34 pm

    Since the big 3 U.S. carriers aren’t philanthropic enterprises, I have to admit to being satisfied in most respects with their product. I’m dead set against them providing a perfect experience for me and their other customers that could threaten to result in the bankruptcies they faced previously. Those devastated their employees and shareholders. Like any legitimate business, they of course are forced into a balancing act that suits some and annoys or turns away others. The tilting at windmills is fine for venting frustration, but it’s clear the majority of flyers are content with “good enough”, for any number of reasons, scheduling, routing, PRICE. So I for one am not optimistic about any change in the program.

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