Merging Continental and United means endless decisions, from uniforms to coffee
By Drake Bennett
Last July, 14 months after United and Continental Airlines announced they were combining to form the largest carrier in the world, the merged airline took one of the thousands of steps required to integrate its fleet: It harmonized the coffee. Just as each carrier had its own logo, slogan, and peerage of frequent-flier status levels, each served its own blend of joe. Continentalʼs coffee was from a company called Fresh Brew, Unitedʼs was from Starbucks (SBUX). “The new United,” as the merged airline called itself, had to choose.
With one food-service supply chain, it made no sense to maintain two coffee contracts. And buying from one source offered the possibility of bigger volume discounts, exactly the sort of savings that United and Continental executives had hoped to create with the merger. The coffee question represented a tiny aspect of the problem of running an airline, but the quantities were huge: Last year the new United (UAL) sent enough coffee into the sky to brew 62 million cups. The vice-president in charge of food services at United is a slim, chipper woman named Sandra Pineau-Boddison. She considers herself a coffee enthusiast “only if you count mochas as true coffee.” Still, Pineau-Boddison did not take Unitedʼs coffee decision lightly.
For months the issue dominated the meetings of the beverage committee, a 14-member panel drawn from procurement, flight operations, finance, food services, and marketing. Unitedʼs head chef, a burly, bearded Irishman named Gerry McLoughlin, sat in. The committee solicited bids, then came up with 12 different blends to try. Members tasted them blind, and, in an affront to Pineau-Boddisonʼs sweet tooth, tasted them black.