In-flight dining: plane fare?

In-flight meals can give an edge in today's aviation market
In-flight dining: plane fare?
Emirates has always considered in-flight catering to be a fundamental part of its service proposition.
By Robeel Haq
Mon 18 Oct 2010 04:00 AM

Does the quality of in-flight meals have the potential to make a difference to customer satisfaction levels in today’s ever-competitive aviation market?

Who can forget the infamous passenger complaint letter addressed to Sir Richard Branson, blasting the quality of an in-flight meal served on a Virgin Atlantic flight between Mumbai and Heathrow? The incident highlighted the increasing importance of in-flight catering for today’s discerning passenger and why airlines would be foolish not to recognise it as one of the key differentials when choosing who to fly with.

According to the International Travel Catering Association (ITCA), the standard of in-flight catering is becoming one of the top three deciding factors for passengers. “On-board service is a vital component and operators ignore it at their peril. A passenger always remembers the food and drink they have experienced,” warns Stephen White, president of the ITCA.

As a result, the culinary delights offered on the menu of some of today’s airlines have rapidly evolved to suit the high expectations of passengers and their demands for better quality, choice and consistency. “Today every operator has to offer a number of special meals to fit different diets and cultures,” agrees White.

As forerunners in the in-flight catering race, the Middle East’s airlines rank amongst the best in terms of the effort and investment put into passenger mealtimes. “The whole travel industry has been driven by the Middle East in the last five years,” says White. “Quality, choice and innovation have been the leading factors. Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand have kept pace, but the question must now be can the rest of the world catch up?”

So what is it that makes the Middle East’s in-flight dinning experience so memorable? A winner of one of the association’s own exclusive ‘Mercury’ awards for global travel catering in 2006, Bahraini carrier Gulf Air prides itself on delivering what has now become the ‘renowned warm and friendly Arabian hospitality and service’. “Many airlines do not provide a dining service on flights of less than two hours, whereas carriers in this region will, even on flights less than one hour,” point out Marcus Bernhardt, chief services officer at Gulf Air. “Although to some passengers, a meal or snack on a short flight may be viewed as a small gesture, it all contributes to the bigger picture of providing customers the best onboard service.”

Indeed it is this attention to detail that has led Gulf Air to win many more such accolades, including the top position at Skytrax’s World Airline Catering Awards for both first and business class onboard catering on long-haul intercontinental flights. “The entire onboard experience is all very important and we spend a lot of time ensuring that customers in each class receive the highest standards in service and hospitality, which includes the food we serve to them,” says Bernhardt. And when it comes to food, Gulf Air pulls out all the stops. The carrier has over 70 Sky Chefs all of whom have trained and worked at fine dining establishments and come from across the globe. Their menus offer passengers route-specific dishes and ingredients as well as a traditional Arabian choice. With approximately 130 departures daily across the carrier’s network, this equates to an impressive 17,000 meals per day. “Currently all food on flights departing from Bahrain is prepared locally,” explains Bernhardt. “All passengers differ and it is important to recognise and identify passengers’ preferences and do our best to personalise and accommodate all needs.”

With many airlines offering a somewhat similar product in terms of routes and cabin features, Bernhardt believes that it really does come down to delivering an outstanding personalised service through the whole travel process. “In-flight catering is a major factor alongside safety and comfort when onboard,” he says. “Offering the passenger a top-quality meal that satisfies their expectations is the essential goal. However, it is the way in which the service is provided that positively adds to influencing them to fly Gulf Air again.”

So whilst in-flight catering clearly does add to the passengers flight enjoyment, the real question for recession-battered airlines is to what extent is it a worthy investment of ever-tightening budgets?

For one of the region’s leading airlines, Emirates, the investment has been huge. In July 2007, Emirates launched its US$120 million catering facility, equipped with the latest in food safety and hygiene management. Today, the impressive Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) has more than 6000 employees who produce an impressive average of 95,000 meals per day for passengers travelling on around 300 different flights into or out of Dubai International Airport.

Like Bernhardt, Robin Padgett, vice president for aircraft catering at Emirates, believes that the concept of hospitality to travellers is historically ingrained as a key part of the region’s cultural heritage. “From it’s start 25 years ago, Emirates took in-flight catering to be a core part of its service proposition and thus standards have always been very high,” says Padgett. “Our aim is to further improve on this high base to offer even better quality meals that better match the diverse tastes of our customers.”

The carrier’s menus are developed by highly trained chefs and tailored to meet the regional preferences of travellers. For example, a Japanese chef would be used to create a regional range of sushi for the Japanese route or an Indian specialist to cater for the customers on flights to the Indian subcontinent. “We believe that in-flight catering is an important factor in how customers perceive their journey - great meals are a part of a great journey,” says Padgett. “You need to start with attention to detail and passion for great food of all kinds, with these you can then develop menus that tempt and satisfy your customers.” With this attitude, it is not surprising that Emirates has won many accolades for its ‘tempting’ in-flight catering, including the ‘Outstanding Food Service by a Carrier Middle East 2009’ award (for the second year running) as well as the ‘Kitchen Team of the Year’ at the Caterer Middle East Awards 2009.

Whilst few airlines have as impressive a catering facility as Emirates, others have preferred to fully outsource their in-flight meals to catering specialists. LSG Sky Chefs is the classic example of how in-flight catering has become a highly profitable niche business. Currently holding the lionshare of 35% of the global market in airline catering, the German-headquartered business consists of 130 companies with more than 200 customer service centres in 51 countries. In 2009, it produced around an incredible 405 million airline meals for more than 300 airlines worldwide. With over 70 years catering experience behind it, the caterer has developed specialised skills in the planning, implementation and management of all processes related to in-flight services. This includes the design, development, procurement and logistics related to in-flight services equipment, all services which undoubtedly come in handy for today’s busy airline managers. Three years ago, the in-flight catering guru was awarded the management of catering facilities at Abu Dhabi International Airport, producing up to 30,000 meals per day.

Alfred Rigler, chief operating officer for Africa, Eastern Europe, India and the Middle East, believes that being a good in-flight catering service provider involves certain basic qualities. “Firstly, you need to deliver both on time and to high quality standards in term of hygiene as well as product,” he says. “Next you have to deliver innovative products and services and offer a broad range of culinary expertise as more and more airlines include authentic cuisine to their offerings.”

Whilst at present the majority of airlines based in the Middle East still have their own catering facilities, the company sees enormous potential in the region, particularly for management contracts such as the Abu Dhabi partnership. The agreements follow a fail-proof pattern - the company provides its expert catering knowledge and access to the considerable resources available through its global network, while local partners share specific market intelligence and on-site contacts. “The rise in passenger traffic is a result of the hub strategy of Middle Eastern carriers and provides a great opportunity for the whole region and the whole industry,” says Rigler. “The region’s carriers are innovative and are setting the industry standards. They push the development in in-flight services by creating high expectations with regard to authentic food for the ethnic traffic and with regard to quality standards.”

As in-flight catering gains even more importance as a differential for passenger choice, developments in technology have opened up new doors for those airlines who wish to branch out further in their quest for quality in-flight meals. New developments such as lighter weight catering trolleys, new oven technology, and even changing the way customers can choose their meals, from the traditional menu card to a digital in-seat ordering option on the in-flight entertainment system –  all can contribute to the passengers comfort and enjoyment of their meals. As evidence continues to show that passengers consistently point to airline food as a determining factor as to whether they will fly, or much more importantly not fly, with a certain carrier in the future, it remains to be seen whether those airlines wishing to put in a little extra into their in-flight catering service will reap the rewards of their investment.

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