Months after Delta Air Lines and American Airlines said they would feed economy class customers on some lucrative coast-to-coast routes, United Airlines made a similar announcement, but with a twist. Unlike its competitors, United will only provide free food to passengers seated in its extra legroom economy class section called Economy Plus.

United said Wednesday it soon will give free hot and cold meals, depending on the time of day, to customers flying on three routes — Newark-Los Angeles, Newark-San Francisco, and Boston-San Francisco. Along with main course like roasted chicken with smoked barbecue sauce and butternut squash tortellini with sage cream sauce, they’ll also get free booze and a “pre-arrival refreshment.”

In some ways, United is treating customers better than Delta, which only serves cold food, like sandwiches and fruit plates, on those routes. But Delta also feeds everyone on the Boston and New York routes, including passengers on the cheapest fares, called Basic Economy. Delta also offers free food 12 cross-country routes, rather than three, so passengers on routes like Seattle to Fort Lauderdale and Boston to Los Angeles still get fed. Delta also gives free substantial snacks and free alcohol to its premium economy customers on most other routes.

American, meanwhile, only provides free meals on the New York-L.A. and New York-San Francisco routes, but like Delta, feeds everyone.

But in a message to employees, United said Wednesday that feeding all passengers makes no sense. Instead, the airline wants to reward elite frequent flyers called “premier members,” who sit in Economy Plus for free, as well as customers who pay extra for a seat with more legroom.

“Customers seated in Economy Plus tend to be some of our most loyal customers,” the airline told employees. “Many are Premier members and others paid extra to buy into this section. By offering a differentiated and improved dining service, we are adding more value to Economy Plus and ensuring that our investments continue to reward loyalty.”

United said it was also adding free meals on three routes, because they’re among the most important — and potentially profitable — in the airline’s system. Even routes like Washington, D.C. to L.A. and San Francisco don’t warrant the investment in special planes with extra amenities, the airline said.

Investments in Business Class

Also Wednesday, United said it would make improvements in business class on the three routes. Flights from New York to L.A. and San Francisco have long had flat-beds up front, but United now will also guarantee them from Boston to San Francisco. It’s a route JetBlue Airways also flies, with its Mint business class cabin, and United loyalists may have been tempted to try the competition.

United’s customers in domestic flatbed business class seats are already treated well, but they’ll now receive a Saks Fifth Avenue-branded duvet and pillow. They’ll also get a featured cocktail — a Moscow Mule with a candied ginger skewer and lime wedge — as well as new dessert choices, and pre-meal and pre-arrival hot towel service.

United said business class on these routes are usually filled by some of its “most valuable flyers,” who expect more than the typical first class product on flights that can be longer than six hours.

“These routes have a longer flying time than some international routes, so it makes sense that the experience should be similar to an international flight,” it said.

Photo Credit: A United Airlines business class meal. United is upping its game for premium customers on three coast-to-coast routes. United Airlines