Airlines revamp in-flight menus, from vegan meatballs to popsicle ice cream

Credit: Singapore Airlines

Airplane food aromas are once again wafting through the cabins at 35,000 feet.

From vegan meatballs to ice cream sundaes, airlines are offering new options and old favorites to entice returning travelers. As the peak travel season passes and inflation weighs on the budgets of households and companies, it’s even more important than usual for airlines to look after passengers.

Airplane food, a favorite travel climax of comedians, is hardly the main reason travelers choose a carrier—price and schedule are far more important factors. Analysts say it could be comfort on board and go a long way in attracting passengers, especially those willing to pay for premium seats.

“Food is one of the most tangible signals that an airline is thinking about its customers,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of consulting firm Atmosphere Research Group and a former airline executive.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought almost all food and drink to a halt on flights as travel has collapsed and airlines have limited contact between crew and passengers to avoid spreading the virus. The pandemic has seen airlines suffer record losses and have sought to cut costs wherever possible, such as on in-flight meals.

With the return of travel, airlines around the world are introducing new menu options. The sale of alcohol, with some new ready-to-drink options, has resumed on US buses. And face masks are now largely optional, removing the barrier to getting food and drinks on board.

As tastes change and airlines face supply chain challenges, the food on your seatback tray is making a comeback – with a few changes.

The pursuit of high-paid travelers

A better in-flight menu can improve a carrier’s image and help it attract more high-paying travelers on board. First and business class customers are becoming even more valuable as airlines try to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic.

Because of the “incentive to win these premium passengers, the incentive to spend more money [on food] high,” said Steve Walsh, partner at transportation and services consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

However, he estimates that food and beverage costs only account for about 3% of a full-service airline’s costs.

Credit: Singapore Airlines | american airlines

While food is sold on many domestic buses and is generally free on long-haul international flights, many of the new offerings are for premium passengers, where there are fewer passengers and better service.

Many videos have been posted online by airline passengers detailing the food, serving and service. Popular staples such as Biscoff biscuits and Stroopwaffel treats attract loyal fans and are highly anticipated by many travelers. Mistakes in the menu or service get frustrated on social media by frustrated travelers.

One suggestion: Delta is offering long-haul international passengers a new cup of ice cream premixed with chocolate, cherries and a spicy Belgian biscuit called speculoos, which is known in North America as Biscoff biscuits.

“Obviously this is a tribute to Biscoff,” said Mike Henney, Deltas managing director of onboard services.

At more premium cabins, such as Delta One on international flights, passengers can make their own ice cream with a choice of toppings including Morello cherry compote, chocolate sauce and speculos cookie crumble.

Ice cream on Delta Air Lines

Source: Delta Air Lines.

In July, Delta said revenue recovery from premium products and seats with extra legroom outpaced sales of standard buses, further motivating to introduce new and exciting food products.

Last week, the airline said it was teaming up with James Beard Award winner Mashama Bailey, executive chef at The Gray restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, for “southern” fare on flights out of Atlanta for first-class domestic passengers. Delta One travelers flying international flights from the hub can also pre-order meals from the Bailey-designed menu.

Airlines have partnered with celebrity chefs to develop their menus for years, and more recently have been working more with local businesses. In February, American Airlines delivered Tamara Turner Silver Spoon Desserts Bundt cakes aboard premium domestic cabins.

Vegetarian and vegan

An hour later, you won’t say, “Oh, I wish I had meatballs.”

Greg Frey Jr.

Golden Door Chef

Frey developed the portobello mushroom. meat balls”, which is served with dairy-free risotto cooked in vegetable broth. The mushroom balls are steamed and served with an heirloom tomato sauce: “There’s not an ounce of meat in there,” he said.

“It’s so nice and you get all those umami flavors,” he said. “The best part is, after an hour, you won’t be like, ‘Eh, I wish I had meatballs.'”

The Supply Chain Mystery

Greens and salads are some of the most difficult dishes to serve on board.

Airline chefs must make sure the ingredients are hardy enough to withstand shipping and refrigeration, so tougher greens like kale are better than some of the more tender varieties.

“We have to be very picky about what greens we offer,” American Airlines spokeswoman Lea Rubertino said. “Arugula, for example, is not our friend.”

The airline offers salads on more flights than before the pandemic, Rubertino said.

The airline is also now offering a “holiday cereal bowl” with rice, quinoa, black beans, cauliflower, corn and zucchini as a vegetarian option in many first-class cabins on domestic flights.

Airlines are trying to source vegetables locally, providing their catering companies with fresher ingredients and reducing transport time and costs.

Singapore Airlines has been using greens from AeroFarms, a vertical farm near Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, since 2019. Press Secretary James Boyd said the airline plans to use other vertical farms near the major airports it serves in the coming years.

Aerofarms vertical farm in New Jersey

Leslie Josephs | CNBC

Once the ingredients are obtained, the task is to feed thousands of passengers, which is only made more difficult by the wide supply chain, labor shortages and delicate ingredients.

Airlines have struggled to find staff in a tough job market, as have airport kitchens and other vendors.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t have problems getting pillows, blankets, plastic cups, food to our planes,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said during a quarterly call in July.

Delta’s Henny said the carrier was phasing out food to ease the burden on the service.

“We knew we couldn’t just flip the switch,” he said. “We had to be very creative in the midst of a pandemic.”

As catering expands, airlines are encouraging travelers to order food in advance so carriers know what to load on the plane, whether it’s special meals for religious or other dietary restrictions or simply their favorite first-class meals.

Meanwhile, some flight attendants still have to make do with what’s on board.

Suzanne Carr, a flight attendant for a major airline and a flight attendant union member, told CNBC that if the crew doesn’t have a vegetarian meal on board for a premium passenger, “we can throw in some salad.” and make a bigger salad out of them” and turn on the cheese plate.

“We definitely excelled at MacGyvering,” she said.

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