Air fare

In London, a world-class sommelier compares wines for a fall tasting. In Singapore, a group of internationally-renowned chefs gathers to discuss trends in food and wine. In Auckland, a catering team scours the globe for seasonal, sustainably-grown produce. Eager to please first- and business-class passengers, airlines are investing aggressively in their premium-class food and wine programs—creating meals that balance global tastes with local ingredients, introducing passengers to up-and-coming wines, and developing more flexible à la carte menus. “In our premium cabins, we’re proactively comparing our product and service to some of the finest restaurants and hotels around the world,” says Werner Kimmeringer, head of catering for Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways. “It’s our ambition to create nothing less than an inspiring dining experience.”

For many airlines, that road to culinary inspiration is paved with menus from some of the world’s best-known chefs. Korea’s Edward Kwon is working with Asiana on new premium-class meals, Neil Perry of Sydney’s famed Rockpool restaurant advises Qantas, and ANA serves “collaboration menus” created by well-known Japanese figures like Harumi Kurihara. Robin Padgett, vice president of aircraft catering for Dubai-based Emirates, says new routes offer opportunity for new partnerships. To prepare for its recently launched Madrid service, Emirates enlisted Michelin three-star Spanish chef Santi Santamaria, who developed a menu that includes foie gras and caramelized pineapple tapas, veal-shank Parmentier, and cremos de vanilla al cacao tiramisu. “He personally worked on these dishes, and the results have been outstanding,” Padgett says.

Singapore Airlines has taken this type of collaboration a step further, assembling an International Culinary Panel of world-class chefs and sommeliers that includes India’s Sanjeev Kapoor, the U.K.’s Gordon Ramsay, New York’s Alfred Portale, and rising Chinese star Zhu Jun. “No other airline has made this kind of commitment to inflight dining,” says Goh Khean Hooi, Singapore Airlines’ vice president for inflight services. “It differentiates us from other carriers, and allows us to stay on top of new trends.”

One of those trends is a new interest in comfort food. “There is a nostalgia associated with these foods that people around the world are embracing,” says Rick Stephen, Singapore’s executive sous-chef. Airlines are taking note. Turkish Airlines serves hearty dishes like Viennese schnitzel to its business-class passengers, British Airways’ new first-class offers traditional English tea service with cut sandwiches and cakes, and Etihad’s fall U.S. menu features dishes like roasted lamb loin and green-pea soup with forest mushrooms.

Global reach. Local focus.
As fast-growing carriers—especially those in the Middle East and Asia—expand their route networks, they’re diversifying their menus in tandem. “We’re a global airline with a global customer base, and it’s essential that our guests find something they’re comfortable with,” says Etihad’s Kimmeringer. “We tailor our food to the routes we serve, whether it’s a traditional Japanese kaiseki menu on Tokyo and Nagoya routes, or Michigan brown trout with baked potato on flights to the U.S.”

But airlines must strike a balance between global and local. “As a true Arabic airline, we need to ensure that our guests can enjoy authentic Arabic and Middle Eastern cuisine,” says Kimmeringer. All premium-cabin menus at Etihad include at least one Middle Eastern dish, such as chicken shish tawook, served with saffron sauce and dill rice, and a dessert of creamy bread pudding with rose water and pistachio. Arabic sweets are also available on every flight.

Hugo Pantone, executive chef at LAN, strives to create meals that provide a consistent experience across the airline’s network, while at the same time offering local accents. “Passengers should find a comparable menu, whether they board one of our planes in Santiago, Auckland or Rome,” he says. “So we offer very similar dishes, but give them interesting little touches depending on the route.” He says that can mean using native spices or a local variety of vegetable. “Potatoes from New Zealand are different than those from Europe,” he says. “It can be as simple as that.”

At Alitalia, the airline’s new business-class menus showcase different sides of Italian cuisine. “There is great diversity in our different regions,” says Alitalia’s sommelier Carlo Attisano, who is heavily involved in the airline’s food program. ”Every two months, we highlight different areas of the country.” Earlier this year, Alitalia featured dishes from Italy’s Latium and Apulia regions, and this fall, will focus on Sicily and LaMarche.

Fresh and seasonal
Airlines are also making the move to local seasonal foods. “Our outstation (non-Abu Dhabi) kitchens are able to provide us with fresh food that comes from the regions we serve,” Kimmeringer says. “And rotating our menus regularly allows us to take advantage of what’s in season.” At Air New Zealand, sourcing locally is a key part of the entire menu development process. “Our country is known for the quality of its produce, fish and meat, and we use as much local product as possible,” says Alistair Dunlop, the airline’s inflight catering manager. “We have great respect for the ecological systems around us, and purchase foods drawn from sustainable sources whenever we can. When feasible, we also use organic.”

While the industry focuses on food quality and innovative menus, it’s also working to make inflight dining more flexible and convenient. ANA has revamped its entire business-class meal program around à la carte service that is part of its ”My Style, My Space” concept. The airline’s Senior Manager of Products and Services Norihiro Kawate says the menu’s 30 diverse items, which include simmered sweetfish with roe, chicken bharta, and pan-fried beef tenderloin, can be mixed and matched and ordered at any point during a flight. Etihad offers a “Kitchen Anytime” menu, and a chair-side beverage service that includes coffee, tea, espresso, cappuccino, Americano, or hot-chocolate drinks.

But the industry admits that while inflight cuisine is arguably better than it has ever been, and airlines continue making great strides in what Emirates’ Padgett calls “replicating the restaurant experience,” there are limitations. “When you’re at 35,000 feet, you don’t have an open flame to sear a sea scallop, and you can’t make a soufflé,” says Matt Moran, an Australian chef who is a member of Singapore’s ICP. “But, once you get your head around what actually can be done on a plane, there are lots of places you can go.”

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