Hobson’s choice

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United Airlines recently started asking its first-class passengers a few days before the flight whether they prefer one entree or the other.  But for me it was a Hobson’s choice.

I’m flying this week to Maryland to attend a Patent Cooperation Treaty Advisory Group Working Breakfast sponsored by the World Intellectual Property Organization.  I’ve had the honor to attend this annual event many times since its inception some twenty years ago.  At this breakfast I get to rub elbows with real power users of the international patent filing system and I get to talk with people at WIPO who make the system work as well as it does. 

The way this relates to today’s post is that tomorrow is the day that I will fly back to Colorado after the event, and through a bit of good luck my pledge of some frequent flyer miles will get me an upgrade to first class.

Several days before the upgraded flight, an email message (quoted above) arrived from United.  I was invited to select my inflight meal. I guess this must be a new thing.  Instead of asking people during the flight whether they want this entree or that entree, I guess United has the idea of asking the same question several days in advance.  Maybe the idea is that if lots of people ask for one entree and very few people ask for the other entree, United can tell the catering company to stock the galley with a number of each entree to match the responses received in advance.

But what happened next? I clicked on the link, and this is what popped up on the screen:

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Yes there is only one meal choice.  I can pick Buffalo Chicken or nothing.  The other entree, Sweet Chili Noodle Salad, is greyed out.  It is not at all clear to me how my inflight experience would be different depending on whether I go through the rest of the “selection” process or not.  

Now I can certainly imagine the reaction of many readers — if ever there were a paradigm of a First-World problem, this is it.  I don’t really mean to complain that this was a bad experience.  I am just offering it up as a very curious feature for an airline to offer, if indeed there is only to be one choice for the customer.

I will also mention something that I try very hard to do if the situation permits.  When I do have the good luck to be in first class, and when I get the question “would I like this entree or that entree?”, I try as hard as I can to figure out if in fact I would be satisfied with either one.  And indeed if the answer to this question is “yes”, then the answer I give to the flight attendant is along these lines:

I imagine you may run out of one entree or the other, and you may end up with a passenger who feels strongly that they must have some particular entree.  So I can tell you I will be just fine with whatever is left over.

Invariably when this happens, a wide smile appears on the face of the flight attendant.  

3 Replies to “Hobson’s choice”

  1. I have met a stranger one. There was a passenger with a peanut allergy so severe that the crew appealed for people in the same cabin section as him/her not to eat peanuts. One of the dinner choices (This was transatlantic, so there was a choice even in coach.) had a peanut sauce, so could not be served to the passengers in that cabin….

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