Will economy travellers always have to suffer poor food, or is there hope ahead? Jenny Southan reports on innovations at the back of the plane.
Being stuck in economy class on a long-haul flight is bad enough, but what can really break you is the food. Take this excerpt from what may be the most famous complaint letter ever published, describing an economy class meal served on a Virgin Atlantic flight: “On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird. Once it was regurgitated, it was clearly then blended and mixed with a bit of mustard.”
We all have horror stories about airline food (and please do share them at businesstraveller.com/discussion) so for many frequent flyers, bringing a packed lunch or grabbing a bite before boarding is the only solution. Of course, with some airlines scrapping meals from short-haul flights to cut costs or charging for sorry-looking taco melts on board, travellers may not even be given the choice of a free dinner at all.
In the eyes of some, this may be no great loss, but the reality is that flying in economy can be boring, uncomfortable and downright stressful, and the meal service is something to break the monotony – even if it is to peel back the tin-foil lid of yet another disappointment. As Heidi Niemenlehto-Jarvinen, manager of in-flight product and development for Finnair, says: “Better food makes a better mood.”
So is there any hope? Is eating in economy always going to involve, at best, a strangely textured but reasonably tasty dish of protein, carbohydrate and vegetable alongside a chilled roll in a plastic wrapper, or at worst, culinary hell in the form of some unidentifiable organic matter that you wouldn’t feed to an animal?
Before you write your letter of complaint, the first thing to remember is that as a passenger you have no legal right to be served food on board – so anything you do get is a bonus, and one the carrier is simply hoping will help differentiate it from its rivals.
A spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority says: “There are no specific regulations that require airlines to provide food and drink. However, it is clearly in the interests of an airline to keep its customers happy, particularly on long-haul flights, and that means providing refreshments. In terms of standards and hygiene, the catering companies providing the food will be certified by the local authority in the area in which they are based, and their premises inspected accordingly.”
While critics may feel that the quality of food in economy may not be much of a differentiator – after all, you are unlikely to choose one airline over another on the basis of it serving a decent lamb biryani – most legacy carriers consider the food they serve to be important, and many take real pride in it. Take Emirates, which beat 34 other airlines in a recent survey of 1,200 people by flight comparison site skyscanner.net based on the taste, presentation and choice of its meals.
Robin Padgett, vice-president of aircraft catering for Emirates, says: “The key to the success of our food is attention to detail, quality and being generous. One of the easiest ways to save money is on catering but we have resisted that – last year we invested more in it than we ever have. Just because you are sitting at the back end of the plane, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have great food, portions and beverages.”
Skyscanner director Barry Smith has noticed that other carriers are placing more importance on food, too. “Although there are some notable exceptions, airlines are making huge efforts to provide good-quality meals,” he says. “It is interesting to see the Middle Eastern and Asian airlines ranking so highly [Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways and Etihad were also placed in the top ten]. Airline food is notorious for being bland and perhaps it is the use of these strong Eastern flavours and spices that is contributing to their popularity.”
So how has economy food changed over the years? Reports indicate that when the recession hit, the average price of a meal went down to US$3.50, compared with US$6 in the 1990s. And this is a trend that’s continuing.
Hans-Petter Ross, acting deputy general manager at airline caterer Gate Gourmet, says: “It has become more and more simplified. Typically, what you would have got in the past was some protein with your starter, a good main meal, a dessert, cheese, crackers and chocolates – not just a dessert. It’s like this reputation of bad airline food is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the airlines are cutting back. Is food your decision driver in booking economy travel? No. But when you are on the aircraft and presented with it, that’s another thing.”
It’s worth recognising that not everyone travelling in economy has had bad experiences. One contributor to our online forum (businesstraveller.com/discussion) recently reported: “One of the best airline meals I ever had was in economy with Continental. It was a wonderful beef with a jus served with green beans and mashed potato. It was so tasty I ended up finishing my companion’s and a spare one offered by cabin crew.”
Of course, enjoyment is highly subjective, and such comments seem to be the exception rather than the rule. “Make or take sandwiches, folks. It’s all rubbish,” says another forum contributor. The truth is, few of us are going to get excited about mile-high dining unless we’re in the first and business class cabins.
So how is economy class food likely to evolve, and how is technological innovation and our understanding of the science of food shaping the way it looks and tastes? Following the lead of Jamie Oliver, who set out to transform school dinners a few years back, in a recent television show for Channel 4 called Heston’s Mission Impossible (look out for it on board BA flights this summer), celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal made suggestions for improving in-flight grub.
Blumenthal worked alongside chefs at Gate Gourmet, which processes up to 16,000 economy meals a day for British Airways long-haul flights (these are either flown in pre-frozen from Germany or Headland Foods in the UK), and spoke with cabin crew to learn about the restrictions involved in cooking on the ground and then reheating and distribution on board.
He also demonstrated how flying at altitude, where humidity is lower than the Sahara desert, impairs our ability to taste by as much as 30 per cent. Add to this the negative impact of reheating food, and research from the journal Food Quality and Preference (sciencedirect.com) claiming that background noise, such as that from aircraft engines, adversely affects our perception of flavour and crunchiness, and it’s easy to see why a dish that was perfectly appetising on the ground could be far less palatable in the air.
One of Blumenthal’s solutions was providing passengers with nasal douches to counter the effect of a cabin’s dryness on the ability to taste. While the tongue has 10,000 taste receptors, it can detect only five flavours – sweet, salt, bitter, sour and “umami” (defined by Japan’s Umami Information Centre – umamiinfo.com – as “a pleasant savoury taste”).
In contrast, the nose can identify thousands of individual aromas that contribute to the depth and complexity of what you are eating. So in theory, hydrating your nasal cavity with a saline solution (available from pharmacies in a small spray bottle) will increase your ability to taste on board.
But who would really want to try one out? Mark Hassell, BA’s head of product and service, says: “The nasal douches were horrible – we shall not be doing any of that. But new planes such as the B787 Dreamliner [which are far less dry] will help things without you having to squirt water up your nose.” (That said, Business Traveller’s editorial director, Tom Otley, gave it a go and made some interesting discoveries – see below.)
Blumenthal’s research also pointed to using umami-rich ingredients such as Worcestershire or soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, Parmesan cheese, prawns and seaweed instead of salt to add flavour. Hassell says: “The umami component has got people thinking about what menu development in the next 12 months needs to look like.”
In what other ways might dishes progress? In response to growing demand to cater to individual needs and lifestyle choices, many carriers have altered menus either by providing icons indicating lighter options or, more unusually, a breakdown of the calorie/nutritional content. BA also reports that requests for its special or medical meals, such as Hindu, Kosher, low fat, low lactose, vegetarian, vegan and diabetic, have gone up. Hassell says: “People don’t want to feel uncomfortable or stodgy, and there is a continual requirement for greater flexibility and choice.”
Choice is something Finnair has also been focusing on. Niemenlehto-Jarvinen says: “More customers are ready to make their decision before their flight and pre-order.”
Charter passengers can order an upgraded premium meal for flights departing from Finland, and she says the carrier may introduce this on scheduled long-haul flights.
This is something Japan’s ANA already offers in the form of its “My Choice” service, which allows economy passengers to buy a business class meal in advance for 8,000 yen (£59). It’s a trend that will no doubt grow in the future, as airlines tap into a new source of ancillary revenue.
But that’s not all. In the years to come, thanks to innovations in galley technology, there will even be the option of cooking à la carte. Matt Cooper, international airline product and service manager for Air New Zealand, says: “We are working to create a restaurant-type experience in-flight.” To achieve this, it has become the first carrier to install state-of-the-art induction ovens, as opposed to traditional convection ones, and even a toaster – something very few airlines offer – on board its new B777-300ERs.
The revolutionary ovens allow food to be cooked to order (only in business and premium economy at the moment, though they will be installed in economy too for standard reheating), so you can now get your steak medium-rare and your eggs soft-poached. They will even be able to bake pizzas and grill burgers, and in the future, there is the possibility of enabling economy passengers to purchase such dishes through the in-flight entertainment system. ANZ already allows people to buy business class wine, champagne and snacks in this way.
Cooper says: “Induction ovens give us great opportunities to increase the freshness of food and provide customers with greater control over what they are eating. We’ll continue to increase the variety of meals as we gain in-flight experience with the equipment over the coming months.”
BA’s Hassell is also enthusiastic about the opportunities such technology affords. “At the moment, if you open an oven you’ll see about 40 or 50 meals inside. It’s not like your oven at home – if you keep opening it, it destroys the heating cycle so doesn’t allow a lot of flexibility in terms of timings and meal types. In the future, better technology such as induction ovens has got to be a way forward for personalising food.” In the meantime, BA has installed new steam ovens on its B777-300s, which Hassell calls “fantastic”, and will also be putting them on its A380s and B787s.
For now, if you want the à la carte cuisine offered by induction ovens you will need to be travelling in the premium cabins of ANZ’s B777-300ERs, and it could be some years before other airlines start rolling out this technology. But by the time the next generation of travellers are taking to the skies, it’s likely that they will be tucking into freshly prepared top-tier food even at the back of the plane – albeit at a price. Until then, you might want to make time to nip to Pret before your flight is called.
Visit facebook.com/businesstraveller for photo stories about Gate Gourmet’s food production facilities at Heathrow West, and Air New Zealand’s development centre Hangar 9, where the new galley concept was trialled.
Visit airlinemeals.net to view photos of real in-flight food or upload your own.
Taste the difference
To see if a saline nasal spray makes any difference to our sense of taste in the air, I conducted a very unscientific test, writes Tom Otley. Take one 11-hour flight from London to Hong Kong on British Airways in World Traveller Plus (premium economy). Peel aluminium foil from hot meal described only as “chicken”. Eat several mouthfuls, then pause, take a sip of water, and then apply nasal spray. Smile at lady in neighbouring seat, who looks away. Try more of meal. Consider difference.
The result? There is a difference. The meal definitely improved in flavour, and individual ingredients became more apparent. Admittedly, I was hungry and would have eaten it all anyway, but for more subtle flavours, the nasal douche can be recommended. Now, which airline is going to be the first to include the spray in an amenity bag?