Airlines revamp in-flight menus, from vegan meatballs to sundaes

Courtesy of Singapore Airlines

The aromas 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 entice returning travelers. As the peak travel season wanes and inflation weighs on household and business budgets, it is even more important than usual for airlines to woo passengers.

Airplane food, a favorite punch of comedians, isn’t the main reason travelers choose a carrier — price and schedule are much more important factors. But it can be creature comforts on board and can go a long way in convincing passengers, especially those willing to pay for premium seats, analysts say.

“Food is one of the most tangible signals of what an airline thinks of its customers,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of travel consultancy Atmosphere Research Group and a former airline executive.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic halted almost all catering services on flights as travel collapsed and airlines limited crew contact with passengers to avoid spreading the virus. The pandemic has led airlines to incur losses and caused them to cut costs where possible, such as in-flight food.

With travel returning, airlines around the world are rolling out new menu options. Liquor sales, with some new ready-to-drink options, are back on board in US coach cabins. And face masks are now mostly optional, removing a barrier to onboard catering service.

As tastes change and airlines grapple with supply chain challenges, the meal on your seat tray is making a comeback – with a few tweaks.

Hunt the highest paid travelers

Better in-flight menus can improve a carrier’s image and help attract more well-paid travelers on board. First and business class customers are becoming even more popular as airlines try to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic.

Because of “the incentive to gain those premium class passengers, the incentive to spend more money [on food] is high,” said Steve Walsh, a partner at management consulting firm Oliver Wyman in its transportation and services practice.

Yet food and beverage costs are just 3% of a full-service airline’s expenses, he estimated.

Courtesy of Singapore Airlines | American airlines

While food is on sale in many domestic coach cabins and is usually free on long-haul international flights, many of the new offers are targeting premium classes, where there are fewer passengers and more service. elaborated.

A plethora of videos have been uploaded by airline passengers examining meals, dishes and service in detail. Popular staples such as Biscoff cookies and Stroopwaffel candies attract loyal followers and are expected by many travelers. Menu or service missteps are amplified on social media by disappointed travelers.

One deal: Delta is offering passengers on long-haul international flights a new sundae in a cup premixed with chocolate, cherries and spicy Belgian cookies called speculoos, known in North America as Biscoff cookies.

“Obviously it’s a tribute to the Biscoff,” said Mike Henny, general manager of Deltas onboard service operations.

In more premium cabins, such as Delta One on international flights, passengers can create their own sundaes with a choice of toppings, including sour cherry compote, chocolate sauce and speculoos cookie crumbs.

Ice cream on Delta Air Lines

Source: Delta Airlines

Delta said in July that the revenue recovery in premium products and its seats with more legroom were outpacing sales of the standard coach – further motivation to introduce exciting new food products.

Last week, the airline announced it was partnering with James Beard Award-winning Mashama Bailey, executive chef of The Gray restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, for “Southern-inspired” meals on flights to departure from Atlanta for domestic first class passengers. Travelers on Delta One traveling internationally from the hub can also pre-order menu items curated by Bailey.

For years, airlines have partnered with celebrity chefs to design their menus, and lately they’ve worked more 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 options for travelers who prefer vegetarian and vegan meals. Now, these types of alternative dishes are coming under even greater scrutiny.

“Pasta isn’t always the answer,” Delta’s Henny said.

Singapore Airlines, a carrier that operates some of the longest flights in the world, tapped Southern California-based luxury spa Golden Door to develop dozens of recipes for its in-flight menu. Golden Door executive chef Greg Frey Jr. focuses on vegetable dishes that he says are among the best for digestion on flights.

“I think people are understandably worried that they won’t feel as full with this vegetarian meal and [think] “I just need this piece of meat.” And in the end…you really don’t need that much protein when you’re sitting on a plane and relaxing,” he said. “It’s not like you’re lifting heavy.”

An hour later, you’re not going, ‘Ugh, I wish I didn’t have the meatballs.'”

Greg Frey Jr.

executive chef at Golden Door

Frey developed a Portobello mushroom meatball” dish that is served with a dairy-free risotto made with vegetable broth. The mushroom balls are steamed and served with an heirloom tomato sauce: “There isn’t a piece of meat there inside,” he said.

“It’s so satisfying and you get all those umami flavors,” he said. “The best part is an hour later, you’re not going, ‘Ugh, I wish I didn’t have the meatballs.'”

Supply chain puzzle

Green vegetables and salads are among the most difficult dishes to serve on board.

Airline chefs need to ensure ingredients are tough enough to withstand transport and refrigeration, which makes stronger vegetables such as kale a better option than more delicate varieties.

“We have to be very selective about the type of vegetables we offer,” American Airlines spokeswoman Leah Rubertino said. “Arugula, for example, is not our friend.”

The airline is offering salads on more flights than before the pandemic, Rubertino said.

The airline also now offers a “fiesta cereal bowl” with rice, quinoa, black beans, cauliflower, corn and zucchini as a vegetarian option in many first-class cabins for domestic flights.

Airlines have tried to source vegetables more locally, giving their catering businesses fresher ingredients and reducing transport 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 plans to source from other vertical farms near the major airports it serves in the coming years.

Vertical Farm at Aerofarms in New Jersey

Leslie Joseph | CNBC

Once the ingredients are found, there is the challenge of serving meals to thousands of passengers – made even more difficult by an extensive supply chain, labor shortages and delicate ingredients.

Airlines have struggled to recruit staff in a tight labor market, as have airport catering kitchens and other suppliers.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t have issues getting our planes stocked with pillows, blankets, plastic cups, food,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said on a quarterly call in July. .

Delta’s Henny said the carrier is phasing out food to ease strains on service.

“We knew we couldn’t just flip a switch,” he said. “We had to be very creative at the height of the pandemic.”

As catering service expands, airlines are encouraging travelers to order their meals in advance so carriers know what to load onto the plane, whether it’s a special meal for restrictions religious or other food or simply their favorite meals in first class.

Meanwhile, some flight attendants still have to make do with what’s on board.

Susannah Carr, a major airline flight attendant and member of the Association of Flight Attendants union, told CNBC that if the crew didn’t have a vegetarian meal on board for a premium class passenger, “we could get some extra salad and make it a bigger salad” and incorporate a cheese platter.

“We definitely got good at ‘McGyvering’,” she said.

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