Now serving - lime-marinated tuna, Thai chicken brochettes, Cornish Yarg and Mississippi mud ice-cream pie. This is normal fare for a smart restaurant. However, these dishes are being served at an altitude of 35,000ft, from an area the size of a large wardrobe, to customers whose only escape is by parachute.
This is in-flight catering, which although worth a staggering £9b worldwide annually (some airlines list catering costs second only to fuel costs) is the butt of many a snide comment. To redress the balance and attract repeat business, airlines are making efforts to meet customer expectations within the constraints of serving meals aboard an aircraft.
Eating on the wing
"We know that catering is not the starting point for attracting the customer - that's down to pricing and schedules," says Jenny Groom, Virgin Atlantic's in-flight services manager, "but our in-flight services are important, and the meal is a key element of this. We use catering as a marketing tool. This is why we carry out extensive research to make sure passengers are getting what they want and feel special. The reputation for bad in-flight food is disappearing."
British Airways also sees food as a growing influence in customer retention. Carl Gissing, BA's global catering service development manager, explains: "We need products and services that set us apart from the competition. We look closely at the elements of products which our customers value most, and this generally comes down to service style and food. This is what will set us apart."
To meet the stringent health and safety regulations in force, airlines use specialist caterers such as LSG, Gate Gourmet and Alpha. Food is cook-chilled and delivered to the aircraft in refrigerated vehicles within 24 hours of preparation. Overseas, local suppliers are carefully vetted and, where standards cannot meet safety requirements, such as in parts of Africa, food is carried on board for the return flight.
Where practicable, fresh seasonal produce is used, with the emphasis on colour, textures and "clean" flavours to stimulate palates dulled by cabin air pressure. Fashionable ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes, celeriac and couscous are on the increase. A growing number of airlines, including British Airways, are trying to match restaurant standards of choice and quality by introducing designer crockery and cutlery, and making menus available throughout flights.
Catering requirements vary according to whether the service is scheduled, chartered or low-cost with no frills. Scheduled airlines view catering as a positive influence in retaining business and go to great lengths to keep the food offer flexible and upmarket.
British Airways, which serves about 4.5 million meals annually, recently unveiled a £600m new products package. One innovation was the introduction of a Culinary Council to develop menus and service style, involving top chefs such as Anton Mosimann, Michel Roux and TV chef Brian Turner.
"Airline catering in the 21st century is about focusing on the needs of the customer and being clear about their expectations," says Gissing.
Chartered airlines are not so concerned about menu changes. Passengers tend to travel with them only once or twice a year and, as the package deal dictates which airline is used, food is not important in attracting custom. Budget constraints mean there is no menu choice, but charterers, recognising that food is part of the holiday experience and keeps boredom at bay, are keen to keep customers happy.
For example, Airtours International, which serves 6.2 million meals a year, provides a prebookable service that includes a choice of 12 dishes. Passengers can choose when booking or at any time up to a week before flying. "It means passengers can choose something traditional such as steak and onions, or something more adventurous such as Thai curry," says Julie Irving, Airtours' in-flight production director. "Prebooking has allowed us to be more flamboyant. Grilled vegetables with couscous is onedish that has moved on to the main menu. Ten years ago we could never have served curry; now it's almost part of the Britishstaple diet."
Not all the time, however. According to Neil Pitkethly, in-flight catering services manager for Air 2000, which serves 7.5 million meals per year, two weeks of foreign food puts holiday-makers in the mood for more traditional British fare as they prepare to fly back to work. "We can be more adventurous on the outbound flights with things like turkey stir-fry and seafood cocktail," he says, "but inbound we're more traditional, with a roast and an apple-based dessert. We ease them back into their homes with something more British."
During the low-season winter months, Air 2000 runs month-long world cruises. It upgrades its catering and a chef travels on the aircraft to bring finishing gourmet touches to the food and source local produce, such as smoked alligator from Australia.
Menu planning on long-haul flights, whether chartered or scheduled, calls for a different approach. Virgin Atlantic, serving about eight million meals a year, has customers nipping from one time zone to another, and this needs careful planning. "Passengers could leave at midday and, because of time differences, arrive at their destination at dinnertime, when their tummy clock says it's only tea-time," explains Groom. "We have to decide what kind of food and how much to serve."
Allowing first-class travellers to eat what they want, when they want, such as the Virgin Freedom menu and British Airways' Raid the Larder, is something airlines are keen to expand across all classes.
For the low-cost sector, there is no such choice. Meals are not provided and passengers either supply their own or buy from a limited range. Seeing a gap in the market, food service company Sodexho launched its Laptop cold meal range. These are available on KLM's low-cost Buzz flights and from mobile trolleys at London's Stansted Airport. "We felt there was an opportunity for a two-course light meal reflecting the quality of a small restaurant with the convenience of eating on the move," says Marcus Hayes, director of Laptop Dining.
Meals can pre-ordered, selling at £5.50 for breakfast, £7 for lunch/dinner and £4.50 for light snacks.
So airlines are aiming to create restaurants in the skies, tailoring services to customer demands, with menus reflecting high-street trends. As Gissing puts it: "Customers have an increasing desire to be in control. The future lies in giving them that control." n