The airline industry has changed out of all recognition since the turn of the century – and perhaps no aspect of it more so than onboard catering
From a world in which in-flight food was seen as a given, routinely provided to all classes of passengers on all but the very shortest flights, nowadays how much food the traveller can expect (if any) depends very much on who they are flying with, where to, how much they paid for their ticket and the type of carrier they’re flying on.
In its early days, flying was very much an upper class mode of transport and the clientele expected to be fed and watered accordingly. Even as air travel became mass transportation from the late 1950s, most airlines would include some sort of catering within the ticket price on most flights, at least in Europe and North America. True, the reputation for quality suffered as the pre-packaged, reheated fare became commonplace – ‘airline meal’ was often a term of abuse in culinary circles – but at least serving the meal broke the monotony of a long haul flight and kept the cabin crew on their toes.
It’s only fairly recently that this notion has been challenged, with airlines starting to fall into line with other forms of transport by providing meals only for those who ask – and pay – for them. This has been partly driven by the intense cost pressures that the industry found itself under post 9/11, and also by the emergence of so-called low-cost carriers who stripped out many of the traditional bells and whistles in return for offering a (sometimes) lower ticket price.
Servair, which operates in 26 countries for 120 airlines of all types and sizes, knows better than most the difficult times the air travel industry has been through since 2000, not only as result of the post-2001 crisis in the industry. That period also saw the emergence of low-cost carriers, who challenged many of the accepted industry norms, says head of communication for marketing and new markets, Boris Eloy.
The legacy airlines had to adapt, he says, sometimes totally changing their strategy, and underwent large-scale cost-cutting programmes. Onboard catering was seriously affected by those changes, and Servair also had to adapt, and offer new and innovative solutions to its airline customers.
But since the start of the current decade, things have changed, explains Eloy. “We’re on a more positive trend. The airlines have deeply reconsidered and redesigned their product, and onboard food is an important part of this. More and more, catering is now fully considered as a part of the brand’s signature, and designed to fit with the values the airlines want to highlight. As an example, we’re currently working with Hainan Airlines and the chef Mathieu Viannay, from the iconic restaurant La Mère Brazier, in Lyon, with an ambitious project to bring the best of French gastronomy on board their flights to China.”
Another example: Servair was involved in the upgrading of Air France’s in-flight product, bringing starred chefs onboard and revamping the business and first class menus. And while all this started on long haul flights, the policy has since been extended to the medium haul flights of Air France, with great success, says Eloy.
On short haul flights, there have been many changes, notably that the ‘buy on board’ model is spreading throughout the market, and is no longer restricted to low-cost carriers. Eloy adds: “Our R&D teams are working on different offers, and considering different ways to reconcile the economic requirements of the airlines and their needs to bring exciting stuff to their customers.”
The traveller, though, is always the main driver of everything Servair does. “As a caterer, we have to be aware of food trends all over the world – and of course, we like to be a step ahead, in order to anticipate our clients’ needs, and to offer new products that can enhance the travel experience and renew the pleasure of the passengers.”
Food allergies and intolerances are, of course, a minefield for any caterer. The bag of airline peanuts that carried the warning ‘May contain peanuts’ has passed into latter-day folklore, but arguably you cannot be too careful when serving people at 37,000 feet.
For instance, in the last few years, Servair has closely monitored the global trend towards gluten-free food to take advantage of what could be considered a restraint, and turn it into a benefit for itself and the client by creating new recipes, with the best products, but totally adapted to airline catering. Its chefs have worked closely with a specialist in the area, which has inspired brand new recipes or adaptations of existing ones.
But food trends are not just a matter of ingredients. There are many others, such as customisation – including the ability to select food through a chef on call offer, for example.
Servair’s teams handle all activities connected with on-board services such as meal elaboration, preparation, layout and the transportation of trays, which are then put on board the aircraft. Each day it produces more than 560,000 meal services at 44 airports.
But it also offers cleaning and preparing of planes, press management and onboard sales, lounges, drinks and snacks, assistance to people with disabilities and duty free shops.
As a major caterer, with large units based at large airports, Servair does not see itself catering to niche markets, but nevertheless, bespoke service is something that matters, especially for first class service customers which means, most of the time, being able to deliver specific meals or menus.
Servair gained vital experience serving large operations when its customer Air France opted for a hub strategy at its Paris Charles de Gaulle base in the early 1990s. Since then, it says, the experience Servair has acquired has enabled it to gain new customers and partners, through its ability to deliver a high-quality service at its main base. This includes airlines such as Royal Air Maroc in Casablanca, Kenya Airways in Nairobi or China Southern in Ghangzou.
As far as medium haul flights and operations are concerned, the shorter turnarounds have of course impacted Servair, but mainly with the emergence of ‘back’ catering – the practice on short and medium haul routes of loading catering for several rotations on the first flight of the day, to save time on subsequent turnarounds.
In Europe, the low-cost carriers have embraced the ‘buy on board’ concept and this model has to some extent also been adopted by the legacy carriers in economy class.
In that respect, the airline industry is perhaps moving more in line with other modes of transport, which have never traditionally felt themselves obliged to offer meals as a matter of routine. While railway restaurant and buffet cars have existed for almost a century and a half, passengers, even those with first class tickets, have generally expected to pay extra to use them. In recent years some railway operators have started to include food and drink as part of the ticket price – ironically, aping airline practice just at the point in time where the airlines themselves were beginning to ditch the concept of universal catering.
According to a spokeswoman for Swiss International Air Lines, the trend on short haul flights is towards food sales on demand rather than traditional catering. “Customers do not necessarily see it as a given that food is served on short and medium-short haul flights,” she said.
Swiss believes that the airline industry is moving more to a model where catering is seen as an optional, chargeable extra rather than being routinely provided, with the caterer becoming more of a logistical organisation for short and medium-short haul flights than a food producer. “An important factor towards this direction is the new EU laws and food ingredients descriptions,” the spokeswoman added. There is more administration involved if products are produced in-house compared with third parties. In the US which has, arguably, more of a service culture than Europe, even budget airlines have been more cautious about ditching all-inclusive in-flight catering – even though weight watchers needn’t worry unduly about piling on the calories along with the air miles.
At Southwest Airlines in the US, Cindy Hermosillo, in charge of operational communications, cabin services communication and outreach, says that although the carrier doesn’t offer a full meal service, “Southwest Airlines is proud to provide complementary snacks and beverages to millions of customers. We rotate our snack offerings throughout the year to offer our customers variety. On every flight (except when we are notified in advance of a peanut allergy), we offer customers our traditional peanuts (and pretzels as an alternative) as a token of our appreciation and gratitude for flying on us. And on certain flights (based on mileage), we offer the freedom to choose which snack best suits their tastes and appetites from our Select-A-Snack.”
Examples of current snack offerings are, for flights up to 850 miles, peanuts and pretzels; on flights of 851 to 1,520 miles, cinnamon cookies or 100 calorie cheese nips; and on flights of 1,521 miles or longer there is a choice of wheat thins, cinnamon cookies, or 100 calorie cheese nips.
But for some carriers it is still business as usual. Japan Airlines does not see in-flight meals becoming an optional (paid for) extra but as a service offered to each passenger free of charge, and it is not planning to change this in the future. JAL’s customers have high expectations of in-flight meals and catering is always expected on any JAL flight, even short haul and domestic ones.
Quality is everything for Japan Airlines, says the carrier’s lead marketing executive at its overseas region sales department, Valentina Taddeo.
For JAL, “the minimum requirement for catering service providers is the guarantee of quality that we expect.” Airlines are still using their own recipes to differentiate themselves from other products suggested by catering operators, it adds.
Nor is JAL, for the moment, seeking to unify its catering arrangements with those of its fellow alliance members – although “the possibility to do so is under consideration, especially if there is room for improvement on the quality.”
Swiss, however, believes that airline alliances will influence catering more in the future.
Cost is not the only consideration in selecting an airline caterer, of course, although it is an important factor, all other things being equal. Hygiene standards, the availability of professional international chefs, staff training, professional product sourcing, the ability to flex staff numbers up and down, the standard of equipment and even the ability to manage complaints all come into play, says Swiss.
Airlines can of course do the catering themselves. The pros, says Swiss, are flexibility, cost control and quality; the cons include higher personnel costs. But catering is a complex area. Clearly, food has to be ready on time if it is to be any use at all, and there is always the possibility of upsets caused by strikes or seasonal surges in demand.