Don't stand in the way of an air passenger and their Bloody Mary. That is the valuable lesson United Airlines learned this week after its decision to scrap tomato juice on selected flights sparked a wave of indignation.
United, the world's fourth biggest airline, ditched the drink last week on domestic flights of less than four hours, along with a clutch of other beverages such as Sprite Zero, Jim Beam and Courvoisier. A minor adjustment to in-flight catering that would probably go unnoticed. Or so it thought.
Such was the social media backlash, however, that United yesterday announced a U-turn. "You say tomato. We say, we hear you. Tomato juice is here to stay," the airline tweeted.
In a statement, it added: "We want our customers to know that we value and appreciate them and that we're listening. Our customers told us that they were not happy about the removal of tomato juice so we're bringing it back onboard as part of our complimentary beverage offering." Lovers of the bloody Mary can breathe a sigh of relief. But there's been no word on the Sprite Zero.
United's sensitivity to customer complaints was heightened somewhat last year. In April 2017, a paying passenger, David Dao, was forcibly removed from a flight - and had his nose broken in the process - to make room for a member of staff. The subsequent outrage, thanks almost entirely to the mobile recordings of the incident that were shared on social media, led to much hand-wringing and public apologies.
So why did passengers get so angry about the tomato juice?
The reaction from fliers shouldn't come as a surprise. Tomato juice has long been identified as one of the few things that actually tastes better on a plane.
Back in 2013, German airline Lufthansa said it was struggling to explain why such vast quantities of the drink were being consumed annually on its flights (1.8 million litres, in case you were wondering – which would go a long way to filling an Olympic-sized swimming pool). In response, The Fraunhofer Institute, a Munich-based research organisation, devised a test to find out whether our enjoyment of tomato juice changes when in the air.
Subjects sat in the original fuselage of an Airbus A310, where the low cabin pressure, noises and flying conditions of a flight were all recreated.
"At normal pressure, people give tomato juice a much lower rating, typically describing it as musty," said Andrea Burdack-Freitag from the organisation. But things changed during the simulated flight, with subjects saying they found it more pleasantly fruity.
One word explains it: umami. Tomato juice is packed with the mysterious fifth taste, which comes out very well at altitude. Wines have it too, typically rich and ripe reds, like an Australian shiraz, as well as creamy chardonnays and fine champagne.
But think twice before ordering a bloody Mary on your next flight. According to BA's Andy Sparrow, it's the most irritating drink to prepare.
"Back when I was a flight attendant it was the order we dreaded," he said last year. "It takes an age to sort out all the trimmings, and it's infectious. As soon as one person asks for one, half the cabin fancy their own."
The Telegraph, London