Since the dawn of modern air travel, wisecracks about airplane food have been the fodder of comedians worldwide. But those jokes are losing some of their punch as airlines begin to reinvest in the onboard dining experience for everyone. Sure, there are buy-onboard inflight menus with top-notch restaurant and celebrity chef partnerships. But when it comes to meals included in the cost of your ticket (either in front or behind the curtain), fliers will find that some airlines are stepping up their game to bring a more delicious element to air travel.
Premium transcontinental routes lead the way
In the past few months, we have seen many airlines make notable investments in the inflight product. Delta made a big splash when it announced free economy- class meals coming to select transcontinental flights earlier this year. The free meals are being offered not only on premium routes between JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco, but also on several other long domestic flights. Passengers in economy class will have three options to choose from, including a vegetarian selection or deli sandwiches with chips.
Routes with this new amenity include those between Boston and Los Angeles, Seattle/Tacoma, and San Francisco; between JFK and Portland, Oregon, San Diego, and Seattle/Tacoma; and between Seattle/Tacoma and Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Raleigh/Durham among others. This signals a return of inflight meals for everyone as in the 1990s—which, while only a small step, is certainly an appreciated one.
American quickly followed suit announcing it would bring back free meals on its premium flights between JFK and Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the carrier stops short from expanding it to other flights. Still, a free meal for a busy traveler is always a nice perk.
It’s not just long flights getting a free dining boost. JetBlue has introduced free coffee and Turkish simit (similar to a bagel) with spread plus free beer and wine on its short shuttle runs between Boston and New York LaGuardia.
It’s all about the presentation
While the free economy meals are likely to come in a bag or box on these domestic runs, premium cabin meals get more attention. Effective April 1, Delta will be updating the service ware used on its domestic and international flights, featuring new plates, glasses, and silverware from designer Alessi. The Italian company is known for its fashionable designs using bone china, crystal glassware, and stainless steel. The Alessi pieces will look great with the airline’s artsy new Delta One meal offerings designed by chef Dan Jackson, who also oversees the menu at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Not to be outdone, United is launching its first official international Polaris flight next week from San Francisco to Hong Kong, which is part of the airline’s refreshed push for premium cabin business. The airline has partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue for new inflight bedding, including mattress pads and cooling gel pillows.
But before guests hit the sack, they can partake in a new dine-on-demand menu (the most robust offering of its kind for a North American airline) with dishes like lobster macaroni and cheese and tomato soup with grilled cheese. The Asian fusion chicken noodle soup with coconut milk is already getting rave reviews on its domestic trial runs. On the beverage front, morning flights feature a bespoke Bloody Mary cart, the option to enjoy wine flights on multi-tiered stands to taste as many varietals as are on the menu, and a new coffee menu from famed Italian espresso brand Illy.
In fact, Illy coffee is also available on United’s domestic flights for all passengers, and it comes with a sweet Dutch stroopwafel perfect for dunking. Delta serves Starbucks brews on both domestic and international flights to all passengers.
Hotels and airlines learn from each other While airlines and hotels have used brands such as Illy and Starbucks products before, it is nice to see your favorite brands both in the sky and on the ground when you reach your destination. Starwood’s Le Meridien doesn’t want its travelers to wake up on the other side of the world without the right coffee. Le Meridien hired both a “global latte artist” and a “global master barista” who travel the globe training its hotel baristas and staff on how to make the perfect cup of coffee. Many Le Meridien baristas are even sent to Illy’s “coffee university” at its Trieste, Italy, headquarters.
According to global master barista Franz Xaver Zauner, there more than 100 ways that a cup of coffee can be spoiled in its preparation, and his role is to prevent each of those mistakes from happening. If you are wondering how United plans to combat those mistakes in the air, its flight attendants underwent similar training procedures to deliver the perfect Illy cup. The same type of training is important at Cathay Pacific, which serves Illy espresso and cappuccino in the air; it is also launching the first airport lounge Chinese teahouse concept at its Hong Kong hub.
Lufthansa is taking a page out of many hotel playbooks and has set up Nespresso stations at its gates in Frankfurt and Munich so that passengers can purchase premium coffee while they wait.
And if you think you’ve seen it all . . .
Sure, toque-wearing chefs roam the aisles of Austrian and Turkish Airlines among others, but airlines are still discovering ways to impress their customers. KLM serves draft beer from a specially designed cart with the proper pressure pumps to get the carbonation just right. The Dutch Heineken recipe uses the same ingredients as what you might find in a bar or grocery store and is said to taste just as refreshing above the clouds. It is available in business class on select intercontinental flights.
South of the equator, Brazilian carrier Azul is partnering with a Sao Paulo–based food truck provider for its new onboard menu. The airline serves meals from the popular Buzina Food Truck to all passengers on its flights to the United States and Portugal, with dishes including artisan cheeseburgers and grilled macaroni and cheese.
On American Airlines, passengers in first and business class need not stress that their preferred choice won’t be available—its website allows travelers to preorder meals similar to what Finnair, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, and others have long offered. Delta Air Lines is finalizing plans to launch a similar system so that a customer’s first choice is ready and waiting once he or she is inflight.
And forget leaving the lounge to head into the terminal for your favorite specialty coffee drink. Emirates is launching small Costa Coffee outlets in some of its lounges to bring the coffee chain’s barista service and full menu directly to its premium customers.