A chagrined United Airlines relents and won't charge for meals after all

Did you ever think we'd see the day when people would beg for airline food? Yet here we are.

In mid-August, United announced it would start forcing coach passengers on international flights to pay for their meals. Customers went ballistic. First U.S. Airways makes people pay $2 for so much as water, and then United deigned to lock people up in a steel tube for eight hours without providing free grub. United rebuffed the complaints saying the changes were "necessary."

The new "test" charge was supposed to begin on many transatlantic flights as of Oct. 1. But after fierce feedback from would-be customers that the airline politely described as "candid" but were actually downright scalding, United announced Tuesday that it would not, after all, charge customers to eat on long-haul flights. Some passengers who protested the new fee, many of whom travel for work, were e-mailed a capitulation today ("We heard you," it reads, "and have decided not to move forward," before prattling on about its business class amenities).

This latest backtracking comes just a few days after the airline tried to lead the industry into a new round of price hikes and failed on that, too, when its competitors declined to match its higher fares. Whether it's food or fares, United seems intent on taking its cues from others. When others push back, the airlines' ultimatums prove markedly less authoritative.

It's just more proof that these new charges may be defended as "necessary," but they don't appear to come out of some wily economic plan. Instead, the major carriers seem to be using the Spaghetti Method: throw the new charges out there and see what sticks. This one didn't, and it's thanks to vocal customers.

Seeing passengers successfully revolt against one of these new charges is perhaps the tipping point for the future of more fees. Perhaps lower gas prices have undermined customer sympathy. But having gone to the very limit of our goodwill, the carriers are finally beginning to come to terms with the fact that if they go too far, they'll lose more money through alienated customers than they would by providing their original levels of service.

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