One famous airline CEO hired a celebrity chef after a well-known ad exec described the in-flight meal as “a culinary journey of hell,” involving “yellow shafts of sponge, dessert with a tomato, a sour gel with a clear oil on top, a cuboid of beige matter….” Another instructs his airline to serve KFC as a tasty Yuletide treat. There’s a lot going on behind the galley curtain.
We’re delighted to introduce a quarterly series of stories from Business Traveler magazine. We love their investigations into what you might experience on your travels to and from a Stash partner hotel. In this case: airline food.
By Michael André Adams
For modern day passengers, particularly those traveling in first and business class cabins, a satisfying meal remains a top perk in this era of rising fares and no-frills alternatives.
It all started back in 1934, when United Airlines opened the first experimental airport kitchen in Oakland, CA. The trend was quick to catch on with the other airlines, and before long the purpose-built inflight galley was introduced aboard airliners. By the 1950’s – during what was then considered the Golden Age of Air Travel – meal service was an amenity to which passengers quickly became accustomed.
Enter the Concorde in 1969, sporting liveries from British Airways and Air France. Supersonic service brought forth a new level of culinary distinction for affluent travelers. But when airline deregulation hit the US market in 1978, the quality of food at subsonic speeds took a back seat in the minds of average travelers whose primary concern was lower fares.
Enter the era of “We hate airline food!”
Soon after, culinary nit-picking began to spread throughout the industry with low cost carriers charging for meal service in the 1980’s, while first class passengers at American Airlines suddenly found their salads one olive short – part of the airline’s attempt to eliminate a $40,000 cost center. Fast forward to the new millennium, with the introduction of a bevy of cost cutting options which resulted in a number of carriers, both low-cost, no-frills and full service legacy airlines, opted out of meal service altogether on short haul flights, offering light snacks instead.
Despite the well-pressurized aircraft in which we travel, the human body experiences changes in flight to adapt to its surrounding atmospheric pressures. This all has a definite effect on our sense of taste. Perhaps this explains the days past when many were repulsed by the thought of airline food.
According to a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, our sense of taste decreases by about 30 percent at high altitudes. The sneaky, aircraft culprit is filtered air-conditioning, which dries out the mucus in our nasal passages, thereby resulting in a decreased sense of smell – a major factor contributing to desensitization of our taste buds.
To discover countermeasures to these effects, renowned chef Heston Blumenthal at British Airways studied the perception of various ingredients in airplane meals todetermine the effects and importance of color, sound, light and background music on the perception of sky-high meal service.
The results were enlightening; it seems going salty and spicy are the safest bets for a palate pleasing meal. However there are many other factors to contend with in the quest for gourmet excellence in flight.
Among the most vexing are the passengers, with their various dietary restrictions; vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, a host of allergies, religious codes, lactose intolerance, women who are pregnant, heart related conditions requiring reduced sodium, diabetics, those with suppressed immune systems and more. Suddenly, the need to be all things to all people requires a well researched plan with plenty of inflight testing.
For a start, consider that an inflight galley with its reduced space and energy limitations is a far cry from massive chefs kitchens where all meals are prepared hours prior to the flight. Then add the time it takes to transport those meals to the aircraft in containers made to retain high heat; inside is food whose primary qualification for being there is its ability to withstand prolonged warmth without breaking down. Now it’s easy to see why your perfect meal in the sky is no mean feat to accomplish on a budget.
For some, such as Japan Airlines, the seasonal solution is simple. During the Christmas holidays, locals in Japan particularly enjoy Kentucky Fried Chicken throughout the festive season. And while many of its contemporaries hold to the frequent use of hand-selected chefs, JAL has been taking advantage and serving KFC to keep it simple and savory.
Catering to High-Flying Tastes
In a business where logistics represents 80 percent of the challenges, there are but a handful who have effectively mastered the art of the game and held a firm hand in it.
“Gategroup is the world’s leading independent in-flight services provider,” explains Doug Shackleton of the culinary excellence division. “Our 27,000 employees work across more than 160 facilities and 32 countries to serve more than 300 million people on the move every year. We offer a comprehensive portfolio of services, which includes airline catering, provisioning, onboard service equipment and solutions, distributed food and beverage solutions, and much more.”
LSG Sky Chefs, another top contender in the airline catering service business, is an internationally recognized service provider with more than 70 years of experience, serving over 500 million meals annually for more than 300 airline partners in 52 countries.
French catering company Servair was launched during the era of French luxury in 1974 alongside Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Airport. Servair remains closely aligned with Air France. Having a highly decorated, three-Michelin-Star name like Joël Robuchon to serve as the director of the Servair Culinary Studio is one of many ways to uphold a company image. Robuchon sets standards that are stratospheric, yielding recipes that are a genuine inspiration to his teams in the Culinary Studio program, such as fellow three-Michelin-Star rated French chef Guy Martin and two-Michelin-Star rated Jacques Le Divellec.
After being served a half-frozen sweet roll on a domestic flight, Sue Gin founded Flying Food Group in 1983 at Midway Airport, with one kitchen and one local airline customer. FFG now produces over 100 million meals annually from a network of 18 kitchens across the US, to over 70 of the world’s leading airline customers – primarily international – plus key retail partners, including over 3,000 US Starbucks.
“Airline catering is a professional sector in its own right,” explains Ketchum PR specialist Carole Beaudouin speaking on behalf of Servair. “In addition to any culinary aspects, it truly requires a broad range of state-of-the-art expertise. Hygiene regulations, for example, are highly complex and demanding. Logistics planning is also an extremely complex activity. For us, it takes six months of work, from planning the initial orders for raw materials to delivery to the aircraft on the tarmac. In addition, you also need to factor in the workload, which isn’t the same at all times of day, and is correlated with production and delivery peaks, according to the range of connections at major airports. All of this means that it’s very difficult for an airline to do without the help of caterers!”
Read the full story, including Star-Studded Menus on Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, and more, with this free digital edition subscription exclusive to Stash Members, or online at BusinessTravelerUSA.com.
Business Traveler is the leading magazine created just for today’s sophisticated frequent business traveler. As part of a growing global network of publications, every issue of Business Traveler offers creative special reports, engaging lifestyle stories, inspiring destination pieces, and more, all designed to make the experience of business travel more satisfying, more productive and more successful.