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Thu 12 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Haute cuisine

As the world embraces air travel, airlines are pulling out all the stops to woo today's travellers, resulting in increasingly high quality in-flight cuisine.

Haute cuisine
Emirates’Robin Padgett.
Haute cuisine
SWISS’ authentic in-flight menu has proved popular.

As the world embraces air travel, airlines are pulling out all the stops to woo today's travellers, resulting in increasingly high quality in-flight cuisine.

Today's travellers are picky creatures: they know what they want and if they don't get it in one place, they will go somewhere else.

The impact that this demanding customer base has had on in-flight catering has been monumental: gone are the days of lumpy mash reheated in a plastic carton: today's airlines recognise that food is a major deciding factor for customers choosing an airline.

Sarah Klatt Walsh, director - head of in-flight for Swiss International Airlines (SWISS) agreed in-flight F&B had become "a big selling point"

"It comes after network, frequency of flights, prices and the seat comfort - but F&B is still a main form of entertainment on a longer flight and customers have plenty of time to reflect on what they are dining on," she noted.

Emirates vice president aircraft catering Robin Padgett expanded: "For us, in-flight F&B is one of the primary touch-points we have with our customers, so there needs to be a full range of food and beverage experiences on offer, like you'd expect in any top-quality dining environment.

"We try to tailor the experience to the cabins - for example, we would see first class as fine-dining; imagine going to The Ivy or a Gordon Ramsay outlet - that is where we'd want to pitch that experience.

"Then business class we see as a really great bistro experience, something incredibly professional. And we don't of course forget economy either; that should be substantial and satisfying, not some thoughtless meal that is going to have passengers feeling like they haven't been looked after.

"In our minds, the last thing we want to offer is a traditional airline meal," he continued.

"We don't look at competitors because we're not particularly interested in what other airlines are doing; we see our competitor set as restaurants, as hotels.Those are the kind of venues we go and look at - when we're looking at new concepts, we're not looking at what other airlines are doing, we're looking at what's being down on the ground," he revealed.

Meanwhile, SWISS' Klatt Walsh cited the carrier's ‘SWISS Taste of Switzerland' concept as setting it apart from the crowd.

"We are the only airline to provide a truly regional culinary concept on board, whereby we work together with the tourist boards every three months to promote a different SWISS canton on board," she explained.

"We then select a guest hotel or restaurant to work with for those three months, and their chefs prepare menus from the region and in line with the season for our first and business class customers.

"The concept won a Mercury Award for Innovation a few years ago, and is still very popular today. Consequently, we have extended the concept to be able to offer vegetarian meals as part of the SWISS Taste offering," she said.

But Klatt Walsh revealed today's increased customer expectations had created new challenges for the airlines. "The biggest issue is to provide a high quality product at lower unit costs," she explained.

"The airlines are under tremendous cost pressure - and they pass this on to their caterers, who are requested to respond with creative solutions; not only in terms of F&B, but also in terms of operations and handling."

Emirates' Padgett also noted that the volume of passengers flying today had increased pressure on in-flight caterers.

"We've been incredibly fortunate over the last few years, but growth of something like 20% annually is always going to be a challenge," he pointed out."One of the typical issues in this instance is maintaining quality, because when you're experiencing significant growth, it's very difficult to maintain that growth in a consistent way all the time.

"So that's become a bit of a passion within the organisation, making sure that as we grow we maintain this quality focus, as when we were a small airline," he said.

Despite the challenges, the burgeoning Middle East airline catering industry is going from strength to strength, according to SWISS' Klatt Walsh.

"The standard of Middle-Eastern airlines is very high, in line with their overall positioning. They are tough competitors to the rest of the industry and, in my opinion, they will only continue to get better and will be setting the standards going forward," she predicted.

"They have certain advantages that the legacy carriers (in the USA, Europe and Asia) do not have - and this will help them keep their top positioning in the future.

"However they will need experienced people to help them attain and keep that advantage," she added.

Emirates' Padgett noted more of a mixed bag internationally.

"It's hard to comment on competitors, but looking at macro-trends there are certainly some airlines who have lost interest in the F&B side and don't really see it as an integral part of the proposition," he noted.

"Having said that, there are other airlines who see it as an incredibly important part of what we offer to passengers - and I hope we're recognised as being part of that."

Padgett also predicted that, for those airlines following changing consumer trends, a more traditional dining experience would come online for aircraft in future.

"Food-wise, we certainly see the trend going towards a lighter, fresher, more natural dining experience," he said.

"Equally we see choice becoming wider and going forward our aim is to offer even more choice to our passengers, so they can build an experience around themselves. Some want a five-star dining experience, some will want beans on toast, and we want to be able to deliver whatever they want at that time.

"With this in mind, the challenge is of course to find space on board," he continued.

"I've recently had a look at some of the aircraft we might have in future; finding the space is an incredibly technical challenge, but one we're already working on.

"In fact, on-board kitchens are a concept we're interested in and looking at," he added.

"We're starting to see microwaves and toasters on board, even ovens that are able to steam-cook so the food can stay fresher for longer. So it's not a million miles away from a scenario where we'll be able to cook from raw - take the ingredients on board and cook a completely fresh meal," he said.

SWISS' Klatt Walsh agreed: "For the premium sectors, especially in long-haul, I see more and more of a tendency to move away from ‘airline service' to more of a restaurant and hotel-like offering.

"There will be more partnerships with restaurants and hotels, and maybe even brand-name franchises in the sky someday," she suggested.

"Then for the shorter routes, especially in economy, I see the trend of going away from traditional catering and moving into the new operating model of working with third-party producers such as supermarkets or specialty retailers to provide food, with logistics experts organising the handling and transportation."

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