Airline food has been the butt of many of many a standup joke since the 1960s, but today’s major airlines are trying to bring a premium dining experience back to your next flight.
In today’s airline industry, competition has reached a fever pitch among legacy carriers—with all of them offering largely the same services to the same destinations, the impetus is on them to provide a differentiated experience for customers. In many cases, that comes from offering more services or amenities, with food being one of them. Coinciding with the ongoing movement to make everything “organic”, “locally-sourced”, or “artisan”, major carriers like Delta, United Airlines, Air New Zealand and Qantas, are employing celebrity chefs and buying their ingredients from family farms or fancy markets to make meals worthy of the best on-the-ground restaurants.
At the same time, better technology for preserving and transporting food without spoilage makes it easier to avoid the kind of rubbery, freeze-dried fare that passengers dread. These improvements are key for long-haul passengers and frequent fliers, who are naturally going to spend a lot of time stuck on the plane and would like something to look forward to. Delta has made these passengers a priority, with their director of on-board services Brian Berry saying that customers want “healthy” and “authentic” meals, arguing that, “Just because it’s on a plane doesn’t mean a customer shouldn’t be able to eat how they eat in their real lives”. With that goal in mind, they’ve consulted expert chefs like Linton Hopkins, who not only brought on his own full kitchen staff to cater to flights from his home of Atlanta, but worked closely with Delta to adjust the chemistry of his meals to account for differences in people’s taste buds at high altitude.
Other carriers have followed suit, with American Airlines enlisting the help of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse to not only select the best foods to taste at 35,000 feet, but also to handpick the perfect fine wines to enjoy in the dry, pressurized cabin of a passenger jet. Even economy flights are getting in on the action, with United Airlines offering sweet Dutch stroopwafels in place of bland peanuts as an inflight snack, while Delta has partnered with Luvo to make healthy snacks and wraps for passengers on coast-to-coast US flights. While the best meals are still the domain of first and business class, the race for customer satisfaction is likely to trickle its benefits down to coach as well. Either way, the days of frightfully dull “chicken or beef” being the only option are numbered, and your next business flight could end up being the site of your next gourmet meal.