Dennis Cary, an airline consultant with ICF International, says meals alone won't drive passengers to one airline over another, but can help leave a better impression of a flight.
"It's on the margin," Cary says, "but it's one of the things people like to talk about."
United has been struggling since its 2010 merger with Continental. It lags behind American and Delta in the number of planes with Wi-Fi, its on-time performance slipped and a series of computer glitches have left passengers angry. Business travelers who fly weekly got fed up with the repeated problems; other airlines were successful in luring some away.
CEO Jeff Smisek has struggled to collect the same high airfares from business customers that other airline do, leading to pressure from Wall Street analysts. Improving food could be a start to winning back some passengers.
A hot meal on a two-hour flight might not sound like a necessity, but for busy frequent fliers it might be the only chance to grab a bite.
"Business travelers, running from a meeting to catch an earlier flight, don't have the time stop and pick up food along the way," says Gary Leff, co-founder of online frequent flier discussion site MilePoint.
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.