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Sky high fare

Published: 02/07/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » July/August 2014 » LifeStyles » Home » Features »

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For modern day passengers, particularly those traveling in first and business class cabins, a satisfying meal remains a top perk in this era of rising fares and no-frills alternatives. 

It all started back in 1934, when United Airlines opened the first experimental airport kitchen in Oakland, CA. The trend was quick to catch on with the other airlines, and before long the purpose-built inflight galley was introduced aboard airliners. By the 1950’s – during what was then considered the Golden Age of Air Travel – meal service was an amenity to which passengers quickly became accustomed. 

Enter the Concorde in 1969, sporting liveries from British Airways and Air France. Supersonic service brought forth a new level of culinary distinction for affluent travelers. But when airline deregulation hit the US market in 1978, the quality of food at subsonic speeds took a back seat in the minds of average travelers whose primary concern was lower fares. 

Enter the era of “We hate airline food!” 

Soon after, culinary nit-picking began to spread throughout the industry with low cost carriers charging for meal service in the 1980’s, while first class passengers at American Airlines suddenly found their salads one olive short – part of the airline’s attempt to eliminate a $40,000 cost center. Fast forward to the new millennium, with the introduction of a bevy of cost cutting options which resulted in a number of carriers, both low-cost, no-frills and full service legacy airlines, opted out of meal service altogether on short haul flights, offering light snacks instead. 

Weird Science 

Despite the well-pressurized aircraft in which we travel, the human body experiences changes in flight to adapt to its surrounding atmospheric pressures.  This all has a definite effect on our sense of taste. Perhaps this explains the days past when many were repulsed by the thought of airline food.

According to a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, our sense of taste decreases by about 30 percent at high altitudes.  The sneaky, aircraft culprit is filtered air-conditioning, which dries out the mucus in our nasal passages, thereby resulting in a decreased sense of smell – a major factor contributing to desensitization of our taste buds.

To discover countermeasures to these effects, renowned chef Heston Blumenthal at British Airways studied the perception of various ingredients in airplane meals todetermine the effects and importance of color, sound, light and background music on the perception of sky-high meal service

The results were enlightening; it seems going salty and spicy are the safest bets for a palate pleasing meal. However there are many other factors to contend with in the quest for gourmet excellence in flight.  

Among the most vexing are the passengers, with their various dietary restrictions; vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, a host of allergies, religious codes, lactose intolerance, women who are pregnant, heart related conditions requiring reduced sodium, diabetics, those with suppressed immune systems and more. Suddenly, the need to be all things to all people requires a well researched plan with plenty of inflight testing. 

For a start, consider that an inflight galley with its reduced space and energy limitations is a far cry from massive chefs kitchens where all meals are prepared hours prior to the flight. Then add the time it takes to transport those meals to the aircraft in containers made to retain high heat; inside is food whose primary qualification for being there is its ability to withstand prolonged warmth without breaking down. Now it’s easy to see why your perfect meal in the sky is no mean feat to accomplish on a budget. 

For some, such as Japan Airlines, the seasonal solution is simple. During the Christmas holidays, locals in Japan particularly enjoy Kentucky Fried Chicken throughout the festive season. And while many of its contemporaries hold to the frequent use of hand-selected chefs, JAL has been taking advantage and serving KFC to keep it simple and savory. 

Catering to High-Flying Tastes

In a business where logistics represents 80 percent of the challenges, there are but a handful who have effectively mastered the art of the game and held a firm hand in it. 

“Gategroup is the world’s leading independent in-flight services provider,” explains Doug Shackleton of the culinary excellence division.  “Our 27,000 employees work across more than 160 facilities and 32 countries to serve more than 300 million people on the move every year. We offer a comprehensive portfolio of services, which includes airline catering, provisioning, onboard service equipment and solutions, distributed food and beverage solutions, and much more.”

LSG Sky Chefs, another top contender in the airline catering service business, is an internationally recognized service provider with more than 70 years of experience, serving over 500 million meals annually for more than 300 airline partners in 52 countries.  

French catering company Servair was launched during the era of French luxury in 1974 alongside Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Airport. Servair remains closely aligned with Air France. Having a highly decorated, three-Michelin-Star name like Joël Robuchon to serve as the director of the Servair Culinary Studio is one of many ways to uphold a company image. Robuchon sets standards that are stratospheric, yielding recipes that are a genuine inspiration to his teams in the Culinary Studio program, such as fellow three-Michelin-Star rated French chef Guy Martin and two-Michelin-Star rated Jacques Le Divellec.

After being served a half-frozen sweet roll on a domestic flight, Sue Gin founded Flying Food Group in 1983 at Midway Airport, with one kitchen and one local airline customer. FFG now produces over 100 million meals annually from a network of 18 kitchens across the US, to over 70 of the world’s leading airline customers – primarily international – plus key retail partners, including over 3,000 US Starbucks.

“Airline catering is a professional sector in its own right,” explains Ketchum PR specialist Carole Beaudouin speaking on behalf of Servair. “In addition to any culinary aspects, it truly requires a broad range of state-of-the-art expertise. Hygiene regulations, for example, are highly complex and demanding. Logistics planning is also an extremely complex activity.  For us, it takes six months of work, from planning the initial orders for raw materials to delivery to the aircraft on the tarmac. In addition, you also need to factor in the workload, which isn’t the same at all times of day, and is correlated with production and delivery peaks, according to the range of connections at major airports. All of this means that it’s very difficult for an airline to do without the help of caterers!”

Star Studded Menus

To tickle the palates of passengers long before they board, airlines routinely seek and sign big names in the culinary world. Luminaries past and present include Milan’s chef Carlo Cracco and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey at Singapore Airlines; celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson at American Airlines; Australian wonder Neil Perry at Qantas, and many more. And while some airlines hire the big names as consultants to help design a tantalizing meal or two, others such as Turkish Airlines and Etihad are bringing award-winning chefs along for the ride to help execute the success of the onboard experience. 

Turkish Airlines

The recipient of “Best Business Class Catering” at the 2013 Skytrax World Airline Awards, Turkish Airlines has completely renewed its onboard catering concept. Rendering modern, elegant inflight catering materials for all cabins of service, the Ottoman and Selijug concept was created to promote a more authentic experience on par with dining in a chic restaurant or the actual experience of dinner by candlelight, including freshly brewed tea served from a “samovar” in traditional Turkish style at 37,000 feet. 

Delta Air Lines

“Delta partners with several top chefs to develop Business Class menus in various regions served,” notes Kate D. Modolo, senior manager, corporate communications.

Delta’s current list includes chef of Napa Valley fame and Food Network star  Michael Chiarello for the carrier’s JFK Transcontinental Markets (SFO, LAX, and SEA) and all West Coast flights to and from Japan. For US flights to South America, and between Atlanta and Mexico City, Food Network star and Miami luminary Michelle Bernstein rules. Between Atlanta and AMD, CDG, FRA and LHR, there’s chef Linton Hopkins of Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene. And finally for the ride across the pond between JFK and LHR, menus are created by Blue Smoke, a Delta partnership with Danny Meyer’s US Hospitality Group in New York City.

“We have three separate wine programs for BusinessElite – all curated by Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson. Each rotates every three months (two reds, two whites, champagne, dessert/port wines),” Modolo says. “If customers have specific dietary needs such as gluten free, dairy free, low calorie, etc. we have 16 different special meal options to select from in advance of the flight.”  

Virgin Atlantic

It was January 2009 when advertising executive Oliver Beale wrote Sir Richard Branson to express his opinion of the food he experienced on an Australia-bound Virgin Atlantic flight.

A “culinary journey of hell,” Beale wrote, involving “yellow shafts of sponge, dessert with a tomato, a sour gel with a clear oil on top, a cuboid of beige matter, more mustard than any man could consume in a month and a cookie that was like biting into a piece of brass.” 

Virgin has since employed the celebrity chef and restaurateur Luke Mangan to assist with food on the airline’s Australian arm.

Unlike Beale’s onboard experience, the Clubhouse experience for Virgin’s first and business class passengers waiting to board their flight is far from average. Contrary to most airline lounges where the food is typically served buffet style, in the Clubhouse, you can have a seat, take a look at a menu and choose what you’d like the chef to personally prepare for you. 

Another perk aboard the flight is the newly designed Upper Class Suite – a bar complete with seats.

Swiss International Air Lines

At Swiss International Air Lines, “our concept is not about celebrity chefs, but about showcasing the regions of Switzerland,” explains Sarah Klatt-Walsh, director, head of inflight for Swiss International Air Lines, Ltd. 

“We bring a different chef from a different Swiss canton onboard every three months. Sometimes the chefs/restaurants have two Michelin stars and 18 Gault Millau points, sometimes they have far less, but they do bring the local flavors on board in a unique way. From Balik Salmon in SWISS First, our SWISS Meusli in SWISS Business to our famous SWISS chocolates in Economy – those are a few of our signature specialties.” 

SWISS has also taken the allergy trend seriously, recently being recognized as the world’s first Allergy Friendly Airline, certified by ECARF in Berlin. “Our allergy friendly products – whether coffee cream, snacks, or synthetic pillows are upon request,” Klatt-Walsh says. 


In May, Lufthansa rolled out four all new culinary concepts created particularly to appeal to first and business class passengers traveling out of its 17 gateway cities in the United States. 

“The US is both a cultural and culinary melting pot, thanks to the traditions and tastes brought by immigrants from their homeland,” says Ernst Derenthal, Lufthansa’s catering area manager, The Americas. “Unique flavors and cooking styles continue to influence regional cuisine, creating a gastronomic personality that reflects each city and region. Our hope is that Lufthansa’s guests will enjoy a ‘wow’ factor when tasting these new menus.” 

From the West, Cioppino, a seafood ragout with tomato and saffron known to every connoisseur on the Pacific Coast.

Midsouth gateways to Germany can look forward to a smoked, grilled fillet of beef with spicy chili sauce.

Northeast and Midwest gateways will experience fresh pasta stuffed with artichokes.

Southeast and Mid-Atlantic flights are served traditional seafood “cartoccio.” 

British Airways

At British Airways, the general consensus seems to be that as long as planes are loaded with bubbles, a good curry dish and Cadbury’s chocolate, customers are happy campers.

An analysis of the food and drink habits of its customers turned up some surprising discoveries. For example, when it comes to sweet treats, despite the airline’s investment in expensive luxury chocolates, business class customers have called for Cadbury. In response to the demand, the airline offers a range of brands from the manufacturer in its ‘Club Kitchen,’ offering a stock of both healthy and indulgent foods to which customers can help themselves throughout a flight.

British Airways has also introduced “altitude tea.” In a strategic partnership with British and world brand Twinings, it is designed to blend effectively since water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes.

By Michael André Adams

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