Courtesy: Singapore Airlines
The flavors of airplane food once again waft through the cabins at 35,000 feet.
From vegan meatballs to sundaes, airlines are offering new options and old favorites to woo returning travelers. With peak travel season easing and inflation straining household and corporate budgets, it’s even more important than usual for airlines to woo passengers.
Airplane food, a popular travel headline for comedians, is hardly the main reason travelers choose an airline — price and schedule are much stronger factors. But it can be a real comfort on board and go a long way in attracting passengers, particularly those willing to pay for premium seats, analysts say.
“Food is one of the most tangible signals of how an airline thinks of its customers,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of travel consultancy Atmosphere Research Group and a former airline chief executive.
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic halted almost all food and drink on flights as travel collapsed and airlines restricted crews’ contact with passengers to avoid spreading the virus. The pandemic has resulted in record losses for airlines, prompting them to cut costs wherever possible, such as in-flight catering.
With the return of travel, airlines around the world are introducing new menu options. Alcohol sales are back on board in US bus cabins with some new ready-to-drink beverages. And face masks are now largely optional, removing a barrier to onboard food and beverage service.
As tastes change and airlines face supply chain challenges, eating on your backed tray table is making a comeback – with some adjustments.
Hunt for high-paying travelers
Better inflight menus can enhance an airline’s image and help it bring more high-paying travelers on board. First and business class customers are becoming increasingly valuable as airlines try to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic.
Because of “the incentive to attract those premium class passengers, the incentive to spend more money [on food] is high,” said Steve Walsh, partner in management consultancy Oliver Wyman’s transportation and services practice.
Still, food and beverage costs account for only about 3% of a full-service airline’s spend, he estimated.
Courtesy: Singapore Airlines | American Airlines
While groceries are for sale in many domestic bus cabins and are generally free on long-haul international flights, many of the new offerings are aimed at those in premium classes, where there are fewer passengers and the service is more onerous.
A plethora of videos have been posted online by passengers discussing meals, food and service in detail. Popular staples like Biscoff biscuits and Stroopwaffel treats are gaining loyal following and come to be expected by many travelers. Menu or service missteps are amplified on social media by disappointed travellers.
One offer: Delta is serving passengers on long-haul international flights a new sundae filled with chocolate, cherries and spiced Belgian biscuits called Speculoos, known in North America as Biscoff biscuits.
“Obviously, it’s a tribute to the Biscoff,” said Mike Henny, Delta’s managing director of onboard services operations.
In premium cabins like Delta One on international flights, passengers can create their own sundae with a choice of toppings, including Morello cherry compote, chocolate sauce and speculaas biscuit crumbles.
Ice on Delta Air Lines
Source: Delta Air Lines
Delta said in July that the sales rebound in premium products and its extra legroom seats outpaced standard bus sales — another motivation to introduce new and exciting foods.
Last week, the airline announced it was teaming up with James Beard Award winner Mashama Bailey, executive chef at Savannah, Georgia-based restaurant The Gray, for “Southern-inspired” meals on flights from Atlanta for domestic first-class passengers merges. Delta One travelers departing internationally from the hub can also pre-order menu items curated by Bailey.
Airlines have been collaborating with celebrity chefs to design their menus for years, and lately they have been increasingly working with local businesses. In February, American Airlines brought Tamara Turner’s Silver Spoon Desserts Bundt Cakes aboard premium domestic cabins.
Vegetarian and vegan
Even before the pandemic, airlines were expanding their offerings for travelers who prefer vegetarian and vegan meals. Now, these types of alternative dishes are under even more scrutiny.
“Pasta isn’t always the answer,” said Delta’s Henny.
Singapore Airlines, an airline that operates some of the world’s longest flights, brought in Southern California-based luxury spa Golden Door to develop dozens of recipes for its inflight menu. Golden Door Executive Chef Greg Frey Jr. focuses on dishes with vegetables, which he says are among the best for in-flight digestion.
“I think people are right to be concerned that this vegetarian meal won’t make them feel as full and [think] “I just need this piece of meat.” And finally…you really don’t need that much protein when you’re on a plane relaxing,” he said. “It’s not like you’re lifting heavy.”
An hour later you’re not like, ‘Ugh, I wish I didn’t have meatballs.’”
Greg Frey Jr.
Chef at Golden Door
Frey developed a Portobello mushroom ““Meatballs” served with a vegetable broth risotto. The mushroom balls are steamed and served with an heirloom tomato sauce: “There’s not a bit of meat in there,” he said.
“It’s so satisfying and you get all these umami flavors,” he said. “The best thing is that an hour later you’re not like, ‘Ugh, I wish I didn’t have the meatballs.'”
Supply chain puzzle
Vegetables and salads are among the most difficult dishes to serve on board.
Flight cooks need to ensure ingredients are robust enough to survive shipping and refrigeration, making stronger leafy greens like kale a better option than some more delicate varieties.
“We have to be very selective about what we offer in terms of greens,” said Leah Rubertino, a spokeswoman for American Airlines. “Arugula, for example, is not our friend.”
The airline is offering salads on more flights than before the pandemic, Rubertino said.
In addition, the airline is now offering a “Fiesta Grain Bowl” with rice, quinoa, black beans, cauliflower, corn and zucchini as a vegetarian option in many first class cabins on domestic flights.
Airlines have sought to source more locally-sourced vegetables, stock their catering businesses with fresher ingredients, and reduce transportation time and costs.
Singapore Airlines has been using greens from AeroFarms, a vertical farm near Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, since 2019. Spokesman James Boyd said the airline has plans to source from other vertical farms near the major airports it flies to in the coming years.
Vertical farm at Aerofarms in New Jersey
Leslie Josephs | CNBC
Once the ingredients are sourced, the challenge is to serve meals for thousands of passengers – made only more difficult by a wide supply chain, labor shortages and delicate ingredients.
Airlines are struggling to find staff in a tight job market, as are airport catering kitchens and other suppliers.
“Not a day goes by that we don’t have trouble outfitting our planes with pillows, blankets, plastic cups and food,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said on a quarterly call in July.
Delta’s Henny said the carrier gradually scaled back groceries to take some pressure off the service.
“We knew we couldn’t just flick a switch,” he said. “At the height of the pandemic, we had to be very creative.”
As dining options expand, airlines are encouraging travelers to pre-order their meals so airlines know what to load on the plane, whether it’s a special meal for religious or other dietary restrictions or just their favorite dishes in the world first class.
Meanwhile, some flight attendants still have to make do with what’s on board.
Susannah Carr, a flight attendant at a major airline and a member of the Association of Flight Attendants union, told CNBC that for a premium passenger, if the crew doesn’t have vegetarian food on board, “we can pull some extra lettuce and make it a bigger lettuce.” ” and incorporate a cheese board.
“We definitely did well on ‘McGyvering,'” she said.
Correction: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect description of a Singapore Airlines risotto.