Looks like the free ride is over for folks sitting in the front of the plane. Elite-level fliers who have escaped higher fees for everything from checked luggage to seat assignments will have to pay up if they want to chow down on United Airlines this fall.

The beleaguered airline plans to begin charging business class customers for meals on most domestic flights. And in a first for major carriers, United will charge economy class passengers for meals on many international flights as well.

Adding insult to injury, United is also raising its food prices effective Oct. 1. Snack boxes will go up to $6, salads and sandwiches will go up to $9. According to the United memo on the decision, it’s all about rising costs (read: fuel prices).

In the wake of high fuel prices and a challenging economic environment, we must continue to examine every aspect of our business and find new ways to improve our day-to-day operations through efficiencies that still meet our customers’ expectations.

There’s no mention of the fact that fuel prices have actually been dropping lately — along with customers’ expectations.

The memo also says United will cut meals and go to “buy-on-board” in international economy class on flights from Washington-Dulles to Europe.

Apparently the savings will also allow United to cut flight attendants in domestic business class because they won’t have to serve meals.  And even on the premium P.S. transcontinental service, which is keeping the “free” meals, United will cut its pre-arrival snack.

Perhaps United should get some small credit for being democratic with their latest efforts to squeeze more money out of passengers. But business travelers are the lifeblood of major carriers, and the higher fares they generate generally subsidize the passengers in the back of the plane.

Does United really want to antagonize them too? I guess we’re about to find out.