United's premium service meal is anything but

On a recent trip from Los Angeles to New York, I spent a few extra dollars to try United's so-called p.s. (for premium service), described by United as "a newly reconfigured aircraft with three classes of service, more space and a premium onboard experience."

On a flight that United touted as its premium product, I was disappointed to find that the only meal service in coach was a selection of snack packs—cheesy cardboard boxes containing assorted sugary, salty nuggets of empty calories.

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Because the flight was an early-morning departure, the meal had to serve as both breakfast and lunch for many travelers who'd begun their travel day at the crack of dawn.

The flight attendant explained that meal service was offered, for a price, only on flights of five or more hours. On shorter flights, only snack packs are available, if indeed anything more than beverages and pretzels are handed out.

The bad taste still lingered some weeks later when I received a news release from United, headlined as follows: "Hungry, Health-Conscious Flyers, Meet Smartpack—United's Newest Snackbox." The ingredients? "Subtly sweet Pita Break Lavash Multi Grain & Honey Grain Crackers, Glacier Ridge Farms White Cheddar Cheese, Hero Strawberry Preserves, SunGold Creamy Sunbutter, Vermont Village Cannery Organic Peach Applesauce, Bear Naked All-Natural Fruit and Nut Granola, Alacer Emergen-C Tangerine Fizzing Drink Mix and Bali's Best Latte Candy." I can't imagine that 895-calorie menu addressing the needs of either the hungry or the health-conscious.

This is a problem with an easy solution: Grab a sandwich from an airport vendor before the flight. Worst case, there's bound to be a McDonald's or Burger King convenient to the departure gate. I'm horrified to find myself considering the fast food option, and even recommending it to others. But when it comes to in-flight dining, "junk food" proves to be a highly relative concept.

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