Aircraft Cabin Management

How airlines are revolutionising food on planes

Colin Talbot with Alpha LSG Culinary Development Team

Whether it’s buy-on-board or premium cabin food and beverages, airline catering is leaving its old image behind with a range of innovations.

Airline catering was, many years ago, a contentious topic. Often written off by many for lack of flavour, not only has that image long been left behind, but there has also been a further renaissance in this area of the business. This could arguably be due to the move by many airlines to have a buy-on-board policy but is also driven in the premium cabins by the need for excellence.

While it is still the case that sometimes passengers will buy purely because they are a captive audience, many more have become more discerning. The airlines have therefore had to up their game and ensure the quality of food and beverages – and keep them at reasonable prices – to entice people to buy. In addition to providing the service, of course, airlines want to build their ancillary revenues.

Success has come in varying degrees. AirAsia, for example, is so confident about its cuisine that, according to an interview in Singapore’s Straits Times with AirAsia Group chief executive officer, Tony Fernandes, the airline is planning to start a fast-food restaurant with the carrier’s inflight meals – including the best-selling nasi lemak – on the menu.

While other airlines may not be seeking to highlight their inflight food this way, they are asking their suppliers to set new benchmarks in every cabin, as Alpha LSG’s inflight retail and managed services director, Alan Hayes, testifies.

“The constant challenge for our Inflight Retail and Catering teams is to keep pushing the boundaries to come up with new concepts that enhance the overall inflight experience,” he says. “Finding new and exciting products that appeal to passengers is a key part of the process, which has seen the pre-order and buy-on-board categories continue to grow – with lots of new grazing/snacking concepts launching to good success in 2018-19.

“We’ve capitalised on this with new products such as bar bites, Mediterranean Taster and Mezze Boxes – all retailing to a strong penetration. The rise in popularity of premium gin continues, and we’ve introduced new and innovative flavours that have maintained the growth in this category,” Hayes adds.

With the World Travel Catering & Onboard Services Expo (WTCE) approaching, Hayes and his colleagues are focusing on the products to be highlighted there, including those scheduled to be launched.

Airline catering food preparation

“We’re in the process of launching a brand new innovative pre-order meal concept – with our launch customer in summer of this year,” he reports. “This is a new product, with all menus cooked from scratch, centrally produced and delivered in innovative fully recycled and recyclable packaging. This is one-way airline catering – with a huge environmental benefit such as no-wash requirements, fully recyclable and minimalistic packaging, as well as being completely biodegradable if the waste management strategy points that way.

“The portion sizes are broader than your standard airline economy and charter meal, meaning we expect customers to feel well-nourished after they have dined, with a feeling of value for money,” Hayes continues.

“The initial customer feedback is one of excitement and a product they expect a good reaction from their customers on, both from food quality and Net Promoter Scores perspective, as well as a positive reaction to the environmental benefits.

“Within this project, we’re also launching a brand new vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free product offering for breakfast, lunch and dinner – a growing and evolving trend, and another product that we expect some good excitement from once it launches,” he enthuses.

According to its chief executive officer, Wilbert de Louw, Netherlands-based Foodcase International introduced several new concepts over the past year. One of them is the Tubes concept, which delivers wines and spirits in 10 cl drawn glass and transparent, recyclable PET tubes. The single-dose, no waste vessels also have a long shelf life and save 50 per cent space and weight on board.

“With this concept, we are a finalist for the OnBoard Awards,” de Louw reports. “The second product for which we are a finalist is our Tapas concept, which is now listed on more than 30 airlines in Europe.” Like Alpha LSG, Foodcase International will be at WTCE 2019.

“We have over 20 new concepts and innovations which we will present together with our partners,” the CEO comments. “At the Foodcase Piazza, we will present, for example, a virtual reality galley handling and training concept for cabin crew, launched at KLM and now available for all airlines.”

Also new is the ‘Super fresh’ meal box concept, gluten-free snacks and meals concept, a special type of coffee cup and frozen meals in cardboard packaging. “The ‘Super fresh’ meal boxes are freshly made (not frozen) starters, hot meals and desserts with a shelf life chilled of 30 days,” de Louw explains. “We’re also introducing edible coffee cups to minimise waste.”

Silver Swift gin & tonic in a can

Working with the end customer, in this case airlines, is important when developing catering solutions which are attractive to the consumer. “Most of our products are co-developed with an airline and/or tested with airlines before launching. Our Tapas concept has been co-developed with Transavia before scaling up to other airlines,” de Louw remarks.

While Foodcase International and Alpha LSG work across the board on food and beverages as well as packaging concepts, other suppliers remain specialised, focusing on bringing new flavour combinations to the market.

Making its debut at WTCE 2019 will be Silver Swift Drinks, founded by its chief executive officer Rose Unwin in 2017, who will be looking for a strong reception from the airline market to its key products. “We have a range of four award-winning premixed sparkling alcoholic drinks at 5 per cent ABV [alcohol by volume], available in both glass bottles and slim cans. The cans are new this year. We have not worked with airlines before, so 2019 is the year for us to enter the travel sector,” Unwin explains.

The four award-winning sparkling alcoholic drinks – Wild Rose Gin Spritz, Orchard Pear Gin Tonic, Basil Blush Vodka Spritz and Tipsy Iced Tea Vodka Spritz – have been created using premium spirits and natural ingredients. “Our spritzers are vegan-friendly, free of refined sugar, gluten and artificial ingredients. We never exceed 98 calories per serve without compromising on taste,” Unwin says.

There is a growing number of passengers looking for vegan products or products for which they do not have to worry about their allergies, so Silver Swift is likely to attract the attention of airlines who don’t want to carry a number of different types of the same kind of drink.

Already mentioned is the rise in grazing/snacking products, most of which could be considered fairly conventional. Michelle Rossini, business development director of Skinni Snax, believes the company’s eponymous products offer something different. “Skinni Snax is a revolutionary, white space, healthy snack, presently being launched throughout Europe,” she declares.

“By white space product, we mean a unique, innovative product, which is introduced into a market where there is no existing type of product in that marketplace,” Rossini explains. With the example of Skinni Snax, as there is no snack like it in the marketplace, it opens up a new market sector and introduces a new definition of snack.”

The aim is to offer airlines something different from the regular onboard packaged products. “Skinni Snax is high in fibre and plant protein, low in sugar and fat, and is the perfect, healthy snack. These crunchy and nutritious balls are doubled baked, with a crispy, soya, outer biscuit crunch with chickpea,” Rossini elaborates. “As they are made from chickpeas and soya, Skinni Snax offer a smart carbohydrate that contains calcium, potassium, iron, zinc and magnesium.

Airline catering - man preparing food for airline

“Quite simply, Skinni Snax meets ongoing consumer demand for convenient, healthy snacking,” she continues. “With our fast-paced lifestyle, more than 60 per cent of consumers consider health as a key decision-maker for the purchase of snacking. Skinni Snax is thus a complex carbohydrate with additional fibre and a healthy alternative to crisps, nuts and sugary snacks.”

The company is another to be making its first WTCE appearance, and Rossini confirms that there are new products at the show. “Skinni Snax will be launching its new improved packaging which includes the traffic light nutrition system. Skinni Snax has improved its flavours and is further reducing the sugar, salt and fat content, also making the total range vegan.

“The decision to make the whole range vegan further enhances the attraction of Skinni Snax and demographic appeal to the growing attraction for vegan snacks,” she comments. “At present, Skinni Snax has three flavours in the range: Thai sweet chilli, cheese and onion, and original. We will also be launching our new smoky barbecue, vegan flavour [at WTCE].” Rossini reports that Skinni Snax is presently in discussions with various airlines in Europe and the US, offering 30g and 56g packs.

Skinni Snax is a good example of spotting a major trend in catering and producing that ‘white space product’ which, in this case addresses ‘the growing vegan trend, nut allergies, is Halal and Kosher certified, is low in sugar and fat, and high in fibre and plant protein’, and ‘has broad appeal for airlines and the travel sector at large’, Rossini emphasises.

Silver Swift’s Unwin has a similar view of the trends in the industry. ‘Vegan products, sugar-free products and low-calorie products’ are how she sees the industry moving forward. There will also be less packaging in total and, when used, more recycled packaging.

At Foodcase International, Wilbert de Louw sees three areas which are currently trending. “The first is ‘culinary heritage’, highlighting people who bring culinary traditions to life and the personal stories that define our food,” he states. “The next is ‘feel-good treats’. Nutrient-dense ingredients are driving the ‘heathy-ish’ treats trends with snacks that include fortified ice creams, vegetable desserts, mood-enhancing ingredients, protein-packed chips and more.

“Finally, there is ‘limited edition innovation’. Here, playful twists on classic products, retro re-releases, and seasonal themes are feeding a growing appetite for exclusive flavours experiences,” de Louw explains.

Giving the Alpha LSG assessment of trends in airline catering is Hayes’ colleague Colin Talbot, who is the company’s catering director. “Similar to inflight retail, our culinary development chefs are seeing an increasing demand for a wider choice of food across all cabins,” he observes. “For instance, where a flight has a standard two-meal menu, customers may want the option of upgrading their meal or to purchase a snack to eat between meals.

“We are also finding that passengers are looking for a wider choice in the premium service within the same cost profile. This means that our development chefs are constantly looking at innovative new ways to meet this increased demand, but at the same time ensure we have cost-effective solutions – with the airline catering budget at the forefront of our thinking, as well as maintaining our ability to continue to deliver top-quality meals.

“There’s also a growing trend for passengers to want to eat when they are hungry, and not at the airline’s specified service times,” Talbot adds. “Therefore, we need to design appetising meals that can be served instantly, either as a cold plate or that can be heated. It’s all about the customer being in control, and us being able to react to customer requests.

“People also want to know what their meals are made of, what ingredients we have used,” he notes. “A massively important part of any food production process is ensuring that the food is safe to eat, and this means we have very strict allergen controls in place. We are acutely aware of our responsibilities in this critical area and have introduced an enhanced training programme for our staff to ensure we remain fully compliant with the latest legislation governing food allergens.

“In addition to the increasing number of requests for special dietary meals, as our Inflight Retail colleagues are seeing, there’s a growing demand for dishes such as vegetarian or vegan for example,” he states, reflecting much of what was said by the other companies.

“As well as reassuring passengers about the ingredients, it’s also essential we continue to ensure that all of the vast variety of dishes we create are of an exceptionally high standard throughout the cabin,” Talbot remarks, before adding a crucial caveat which is surely recognised by all suppliers: “We know that it’s the airline’s own image and reputation at stake.”

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