Only a few years ago, the food served on many airlines was a private affair.
Now, with onboard WiFi becoming more widely available, people are instantly able to share what they’re eating in the air via Twitter with #nofilter.
It means airlines are increasingly being held accountable for insipid curries or rubbery omelets, and there is unprecedented pressure to deliver high-quality food.
Certain carriers are embracing the challenges and opportunities that social media presents, and are even allowing it to influence what is served in their cabins.
In 2013, ANA began its annual “general election” for economy class in-flight meals. This allows passengers to vote via Facebook, Twitter and Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo to choose which meals will be served on international flights from Japan the following year.
The rising cost of air travel, society’s fixation with healthy living and the trend for switching to organic or carefully sourced ingredients in our homes mean that we are expecting more from our plane food than just filler.
“The race is on to keep pace with demand within the limitations that we have of preparing food at 30,000 feet,” says Joost Heymeijer, senior vice-president of in-flight catering for Emirates.
“People now expect to see things on a plane that they would see in restaurants. On top of that, it needs to be healthy, trendy, look good, and served by people who know what they’re talking about.”
An airline’s onboard offering is also a key portal for communicating value to its customers, which is why carriers keep conjuring up inventive ways to entice us with what’s in their kitchen.
At the end of 2014, Qantas introduced a new dining concept for its economy class cabin, offering meals that were 50 percent larger than before, and double the number of choices, including a healthy option – typically grilled fish or a salad.
How did it offset the cost of doing this? Kylie Morris, the airline’s head of international creative development and customer experience, says: “Our catering team has worked hard to streamline our processes behind-the-scenes, allowing us to invest 40 percent more time and money into the meals and service we provide customers.”
These changes include eliminating butter sachets in favor of “garlic butter-infused rolls,” and introducing new plates that won’t require serving bothersome trays, allowing crew to serve and clear dishes up to 30 minutes faster.
Airlines are also getting more creative when it comes to showcasing their dishes.
British Airways offers SoundBite. Available on its in-flight entertainment system, the 13-track playlist offers the best songs to listen to while eating certain dishes, based on findings about how music influences our tastebuds.
Apparently, Debussy’s Clair de Lune is the perfect accompaniment to a roast dinner, while Madonna’s Ray of Light boosts the sweetness of dessert.
Following the trend of adopting restaurant-standard cuisine, Singapore Airlines’ lobster thermidor has become an institution. The lobster tail sautéed in butter, flambéed in brandy, sprinkled with cheese and served with creamy mushroom sauce, garlic, spicy mustard and buttered asparagus is served in business and first class.
Partnerships with restaurants and hotel brands are also becoming more widespread. For example, BA now offers a tasting menu aboard A380 First Class. The menu was created for BA by the Langham Hotel in London and features such items as lobster consommé and filet of British lamb in a filo roll – each course with an appropriate wine pairing.
Celebrity chefs are also getting in on the action. Virgin Atlantic has teamed up with Lorraine Pascale to create dishes for Upper Class passengers – including Thai beef salad with roasted pine nuts and chili dressing, and warm salmon and lentils with chorizo, asparagus and balsamic dressing.
Qatar Airways, meanwhile, selected two international “master chefs” to develop a special menu for its premium classes.
Nobu Matsuhisa and Vineet Bhatia have adapted their distinct culinary styles to conjure up dishes such as an Iranian mixed grill with lamb chops and kofta, and thyme roasted chicken breast with potato gnocchi and seared tomatoes.
Air France has an ongoing love affair with French haute cuisine in all its classes. Currently on departures from its 11 North American cities, the airline is collaborating with Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud, who will create new dishes like Atlantic lobster in curried coconut sauce with black rice and bok choy to be served in the La Première and Business cabins.
On long-haul flights departing from Paris, Economy and Premium Economy passengers can order one of four a la carte menus instead of the standard meal. French Top Chef winner Jean Imbert has created his own Le marché de Jean Imbert, a full meal featuring a cold starter with organic quinoa, poached egg and tarragon followed by a warm stew and dessert.
On the whole, carriers are finding ways to present passengers with more choice. This is no mean feat when you consider the logistical challenges they face to feed us.
“With in-flight catering, logistics accounts for about 70 per cent of our costs, manpower and effort,” Heymeijer says.
“Thousands upon thousands of the items that go on board are often there just in case of demand because, as an airline, we hate to be in a position where we have to say ‘no.’ From originally having a choice of two or three special meals, we now have more than 20.”
One option, then, is to at least make sure passengers can eat their first choice from the menu. Singapore Airlines (SIA) was the first to introduce a pre-order meal service in 1998.
“Book the Cook” allows premium passengers to secure their preferred main course for their flight up to 24 hours before they travel. When the carrier rolled out its premium economy class in August, it introduced a special version of Book the Cook.
“We are considering dishes such as seafood thermidor, beef fillet and maybe a full English breakfast,” says Subhas Menon, SIA’s regional vice-president in Europe. Free champagne will be served throughout the flight.
At the same time, BA announced plans to extend its popular pre-order meal service — guaranteeing First, Club World and World Traveler Plus passengers will have their first choice of main dishes across its entire long-haul network out of Heathrow and Gatwick.
As a society, we are becoming more aware of the processes behind our food and seeking ethically-sourced ingredients where possible. This presents a challenge for airlines with larger networks such as Emirates, which prepares a daunting 165,000 inflight meals every day, and more challenging, doesn’t have an advantageous location for “growing its own.”
“Dubai has the challenge of where we’re positioned geographically – we’re not found in the heart of Europe where everything grows within a couple of hundred kilometers,” Heymeijer says.
“We source what we can locally, but a large percentage is imported. When we have discussions on sustainable or free-range ingredients, it’s not that we’re against it, but for the volumes we procure, nine times out of ten, those items are not available.”
KLM now serves Beter Leven-approved chicken (from ex-laying hens) on all flights out of Amsterdam. It also dishes up “cage-free” omelets on flights out of the US.
South African Airways, meanwhile, has teamed up with DO and CO Event and Airline Catering to create meals made from “the freshest, locally sourced ingredients.”
Airlines have a tough job on their hands to serve up ethically-sourced, calorie-controlled, attractive dishes that surprise and delight us, that can be prepared in a galley kitchen and with ingredients that come in a quantity large enough to feed tens of millions of passengers each year.
Nonetheless, they know how much food means to us, and it looks as though the days of gray, stodgy, vacuum-packed plane food are on the way out.
By Rose Dykins