Food for thought: How Covid-19 has changed on-board catering

covid catering

On-board catering has inevitably changed during the last year. Features editor Melissa Moody discovers what steps airlines are taking to keep passengers well-fed and safe whist flying.

[This feature first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Aircraft Cabin Management, which you can read in full here.]

For some, airline food is a sort-of novelty, something people either love or hate. Over the years, airlines have tried to boost its reputation with star-studded partnerships, tantalising names or impressive presentation and Covid-19 has only added one more hurdle for them to overcome. 

“We are seeing more demand for packaged solutions that can be served directly to passengers,” says En Route International’s managing director, Robert Dalboth. “The pandemic has seen more demand from passengers for products which require less handling from crew.”

As a result, the caterer has seen a sharp rise in demand for its two newest product ranges, specially designed to allay Covid concerns. The product ranges – ovenable and individually flow-wrapped bakery items, and a ‘flip and peel’ cheese platter – have been developed as part of a move to offer confidence to passengers in premium cabins as the transition back to normal services continue.

The individually flow-wrapped products include an array of both savoury and sweet bakery items such as bread rolls and garlic bread, alongside pastry plaits, croissants and Danish pastries, whereas the ‘peel and flip’ cheese platter is made up of three cheeses and garnishes wrapped in newly designed packing, which is opened by the passenger, thereby reducing contact. 

catering covid

A swift change 

Swiss, part of the Lufthansa Group, has also adapted its offering to fit with the times and keep physical contact between crew and guests to a minimum. 

On European flights in economy, its culinary offer is subject to the flight’s duration. On flights over 45 minutes, a selection of drinks will be served; on flights over 60 minutes there is a normal service; and on its longest flights, a light meal will be on offer. On the carrier’s long-haul flights, the airline has introduced pre-packed meals. Passengers can opt to have all meals fully wrapped and delivered to their seat free of charge. 

However, it’s not just the packaging causing issues with on-board catering. “The international regulations change almost daily, which means a lot of logistic effort with increased communication,” says a Swiss spokesperson. 

‘Regulations are different from country to country which requires high flexibility and fast reactions to perform catering service and food safety. All meal types and service procedures are coordinated with the crew, our internal medical requirements and local regulations.” 

One of its biggest challenges has been keeping the supply chain moving. The carrier puts its success down to communication and cooperation between the group, crew, local representatives and suppliers. 

Elevate the experience 

Despite the pandemic, airlines are still trying to up the ante with their on-board offerings. Swiss’ Taste of Switzerland programme is one such initiative. Launched in 2002, it highlights regions of the country and their culinary specialities. 

Since its inception, the programme has included partnerships with world-renowned restaurants and Michelin-starred chefs. In December 2020, Swiss announced a partnership with Michelin-starred Alexandra Müller, head chef at the Romantik Hôtel L’Etoile in Charmey, offering first and business class guests on long-haul services creations inspired by modern French cuisine.

For first-class customers, starters include leek with egg yolk cream and truffle vinaigrette followed by venison with a Cuchaule crust and Botzi pear, a Canton Fribourg delicacy. For dessert, travellers can sample a white and dark chocolate Toblerone mousse with Breton biscuit crumble or meringues from local bakery Angélo Rime with double cream and a Mirabelle plum compote. 

Long-haul business class passengers will be offered a starter of beef entrecôte tataki with a beetroot-pear salad and Gruyère blue cheese, followed by a main of braised beef brisket with demi-glace and sweet potato purée. For dessert, Müller has twinned a yuzu lemon meringue pie with Canton Fribourg’s famous Gruyère double cream.

British Airways has also announced its own Michelin-starred chef partnership. Tom Kerridge (pictured below) has designed a number of gourmet food items including signature pies and sandwiches as part of the airline’s renewed focus on the customer experience in economy class. 

The dishes, created with a focus on British provenance, include warm steak and ale pie, ham hock and smoked cheddar sandwich, spiced cauliflower tortilla wrap, chicken, bacon and celery brioche and brie ploughman’s sandwich. 

“I am truly happy to be working with British Airways again, and to have the opportunity to champion the best of British to so many people. A sandwich, made with care and great flavours, can be a perfect meal and I hope the passengers enjoy my short haul menu,” says Kerridge. 

A look ahead

Despite the initiatives, the reputation of airline catering still has more hoops to jump through, and Covid-19 has not helped. British Airways plans to move into the next phase of its Club Europe catering experience following the temporary use of meal boxes. The airline has also been working with caterers Do&Co to develop new menus in its Club Europe and all other long-haul cabins, as well as adapting the meal service to reintroduce china and glassware.

Swiss has no set ideas of what the future holds, but says if there is a rapid recovery, catering suppliers will need to ramp up short term production, possibly leading to shortages of some products.

En Route International believes that as lockdowns begin to ease and operations open up, demand will be higher than ever. “All indications are that there is a demand for business and leisure travel, and we expect more normal operations in the first half of 2021,” explains Dalboth. 

“Alongside the requirement for different forms of packaging solutions, we also expect to see a continued focus on sustainability too. Packaging will continue to evolve, as will the sourcing of materials to develop it. It is, and will remain to be, a key focus for the whole industry.” 

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