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

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Courtesy: Singapore Airlines

The aromas of airplane food are once more wafting through cabins at 35,000 feet.

From vegan meatballs to ice cream sundaes, airlines are offering latest options and old favorites to woo returning travelers. As the height travel season fades and inflation weighs on household and company budgets, it’s much more essential than usual for airlines to court passengers.

Airplane food, a favourite travel punchline for comedians, is hardly the highest reason why travelers select a carrier — price and schedule are much stronger aspects. But it will probably be a creature comfort on board and might go a great distance toward winning over passengers, especially those that are willing to pay up for premium seats, analysts say.

“Food is probably the most tangible signals of what an airline thinks of its customers,” said Henry Harteveldt, founding father of travel consulting firm Atmosphere Research Group and a former airline executive.

The beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic halted just about all food and beverage service on flights as travel collapsed and airlines limited crews’ contact with passengers to avoid spreading the virus. The pandemic drove airlines to record losses and had them trying to cut costs wherever possible, resembling in-flight food.

With travel returning, airlines all over the world are rolling out latest menu options. Alcohol sales, with some latest ready-to-drink options, are back on board in U.S. coach cabins. And face masks at the moment are mostly optional, removing an obstacle to onboard food and beverage service.

As tastes change and airlines face supply chain challenges, the meal in your seat-back tray table is making a comeback — with some adjustments.

Chasing high-paying travelers

Higher in-flight menus can boost a carrier’s image and help it bring more high-paying travelers on board. First- and business-class customers have gotten much more of a prize as airlines attempt to get well from the pandemic’s financial impact.

Due to “the motivation to win those premium class passengers, the motivation to spend more cash [on food] is high,” said Steve Walsh, partner at management consulting firm Oliver Wyman in its transportation and services practice.

Still, food and beverage costs make up nearly 3% of a full-service airline’s expenses, he estimated.

Courtesy: Singapore Airlines | American Airlines

While food is on the market in lots of domestic coach cabins and is usually complimentary on long-haul international flights, most of the latest offerings goal those in premium classes, where there are fewer passengers and repair is more elaborate.

A plethora of videos have been posted online by airline passengers reviewing meals, plating and repair intimately. Popular staples resembling Biscoff cookies and Stroopwaffel treats garner loyal followings and are available to be expected by many travelers. Missteps on the menu or service are amplified on social media by upset travelers.

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

“Obviously it’s an homage to the Biscoff,” said Mike Henny, Deltas’ managing director of onboard services operations.

In additional premium cabins, resembling Delta One on international flights, passengers can construct their very own sundaes with a alternative of toppings, including Morello cherry compote, chocolate sauce and speculoos cookie crumbles.

Ice cream on Delta Air Lines

Source: Delta Air Lines

Delta in July said the revenue recovery in premium products and its extra-legroom seats was outpacing sales from standard coach — further motivation to introduce latest and exciting food items.

Last week, the airline said it’s teaming up with James Beard Award winner Mashama Bailey, executive chef of Savannah, Georgia-based restaurant The Grey, for “Southern-inspired” meals on flights out of Atlanta for domestic first-class passengers. Travelers on Delta One flying internationally out of the hub also can preorder menu items curated by Bailey.

Airlines for years have teamed up with celebrity chefs to design their menus and these days have been working more with local businesses. In February, American Airlines brought Tamara Turner’s Silver Spoon Desserts’ Bundt cakes on board domestic premium cabins.

Veggie and vegan

Even before the pandemic, airlines were expanding options for travelers preferring vegetarian and vegan meals. Now, those sorts of alternative dishes are getting an excellent closer look.

“Pasta is not at all times the answer,” said Delta’s Henny.

Singapore Airlines, a carrier that operates a few of the world’s longest flights, brought in Southern California-based luxury spa Golden Door to develop dozens of recipes for its in-flight menu. Golden Door’s executive chef, Greg Frey Jr., focuses on vegetable-forward dishes that he says are amongst the perfect for digestion on flights.

“I feel persons are, rightly so, concerned they are not going to feel as satiated with this vegetarian meal and [think] ‘I just need this piece of meat.’ And in the long run … you actually don’t need that much protein while you’re sitting in an airplane and relaxing,” he said. “It is not such as you’re heavy lifting.”

An hour later, you are not going, ‘Ugh, I wish I did not have the meatballs.'”

Greg Frey Jr.

executive chef at Golden Door

Frey developed a Portobello mushroom meat ball” 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’s not a lick of meat in there,” he said.

“It is so satisfying and also you get all those umami flavors,” he said. “The perfect part is an hour later, you are not going, ‘Ugh, I wish I did not have the meatballs.'”

Supply chain puzzle

Greens and salads are amongst probably the most difficult dishes to serve on board. 

Airline chefs need to be certain that ingredients are hardy enough to endure transportation and refrigeration, making stronger greens resembling kale a greater option than some more delicate varieties.

“Now we have to be very choosy about what sort of greens we provide,” said American Airlines spokeswoman Leah Rubertino. “Arugula, for instance, will not be our friend.”

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

The airline can also be now offering a “fiesta grain bowl” with rice, quinoa, black beans, cauliflower, corn and zucchini as a vegetarian option in lots of first-class cabins for domestic flights.

Airlines have been attempting to source vegetables more locally, giving their catering corporations brisker ingredients and cutting down on transportation time and costs. 

Singapore Airlines since 2019 has been using greens from AeroFarms, a vertical farm near Newark Liberty International Airport in Latest Jersey. Spokesman James Boyd said the airline has plans to source from other vertical farms near the main airports it serves in the approaching years.

Vertical farm at Aerofarms in Latest Jersey

Leslie Josephs | CNBC

Once the ingredients are sourced, there’s the challenge of serving meals for hundreds of passengers — made only tougher by broad supply-chain and labor shortages and delicate ingredients.

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

“There’s not a day that goes by where we do not have issues with provisioning our aircraft with pillows, blankets, plastic cups, food,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said on a quarterly call in July.

Delta’s Henny said the carrier phased food back steadily to ease strains on service.

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

As food service expands, airlines are encouraging travelers to order their meals ahead of time so the carriers know what to load on the plane, whether it is a special meal for religious or other dietary restrictions or simply their favorite dishes in firstclass.

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

Susannah Carr, a flight attendant at a serious airline and a member of the Association of Flight Attendants union, told CNBC that if the crew doesn’t have a vegetarian meal on board for a premium-class passenger, “We’d pull some additional salad and make them an even bigger salad” and incorporate a cheese plate.

“We have definitely gotten good at ‘McGyvering,'” she said.

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