From vegan meatballs to ice cream sundaes, airlines are revamping in-flight menus

Courtesy: Singapore Airlines

The aromas of airplane food are once again wafting through cabins at 35,000 feet.

From vegan meatballs to ice cream sundaes, airlines are offering new options and old favorites to woo returning travelers. As the peak travel season fades and inflation weighs on household and company budgets, it’s even more important than usual for airlines to court passengers.

Airplane food, a favorite travel punchline for comedians, is hardly the top reason why travelers choose a carrier — price and schedule are much stronger factors. But it can be a creature comfort on board and can go a long way toward winning over passengers, especially those who are willing to pay up for premium seats, analysts say.

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

The start of the Covid-19 pandemic halted almost all food and beverage service on flights as travel collapsed and airlines limited crews’ contact with passengers to avoid spreading the virus. The pandemic drove airlines to record losses and had them looking to cut costs wherever possible, such as in-flight food.

With travel returning, airlines around the world are rolling out new menu options. Alcohol sales, with some new ready-to-drink options, are back on board in U.S. coach cabins. And face masks are now mostly optional, removing an obstacle to onboard food and beverage service.

As tastes change and airlines face supply chain challenges, the meal on your seat-back tray table is making a comeback — with some adjustments.

Chasing high-paying travelers

Better in-flight menus can boost a carrier’s image and help it bring more high-paying travelers on board. First- and business-class customers are becoming even more of a prize as airlines try to recover from the pandemic’s financial impact.

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

Still, food and beverage costs make up just about 3% of a full-service airline’s expenses, he estimated.

Courtesy: Singapore Airlines | American Airlines

While food is for sale in many domestic coach cabins and is generally complimentary on long-haul international flights, many of the new offerings target those in premium classes, where there are fewer passengers and service is more elaborate.

A plethora of videos have been posted online by airline passengers reviewing meals, plating and service in detail. Popular staples such as Biscoff cookies and Stroopwaffel treats garner loyal followings and come to be expected by many travelers. Missteps on the menu or service are amplified on social media by disappointed travelers.

One offering: Delta is serving passengers on long-haul international flights a new sundae-in-a-cup premixed with chocolate, cherries and spiced Belgian cookies called speculoos, which are known in North America as Biscoff cookies.

“Obviously it is an homage to the Biscoff,” said Mike Henny, Deltas’ managing director of onboard services operations.

In more premium cabins, such as Delta One on international flights, passengers can build their own sundaes with a choice of toppings, including Morello cherry compote, chocolate sauce and speculoos cookie crumbles.

Ice cream on Delta Air Lines

Source: Delta Air Lines

Delta in July said the revenue recovery in premium products and its extra-legroom seats was outpacing sales from standard coach — further motivation to introduce new and exciting food items.

Last week, the airline said it is teaming up with James Beard Award winner Mashama Bailey, executive chef of Savannah, Georgia-based restaurant The Grey, for “Southern-inspired” meals on flights out of Atlanta for domestic first-class passengers. Travelers on Delta One flying internationally out of the hub can also preorder menu items curated by Bailey.

Airlines for years have teamed up with celebrity chefs to design their menus and lately have been working more with local businesses. In February, American Airlines brought Tamara Turner’s Silver Spoon Desserts’ Bundt cakes on board domestic premium cabins.

Veggie and vegan

Even before the pandemic, airlines were expanding options for travelers who prefer vegetarian and vegan meals. Now, those types of alternative dishes are getting an even closer look.

“Pasta isn’t always the solution,” said Delta’s Henny.

Singapore Airlines, a carrier that operates some of the world’s longest flights, brought in Southern California-based luxury spa Golden Door to develop dozens of recipes for its in-flight menu. Golden Door’s executive chef, Greg Frey Jr., focuses on vegetable-forward dishes that he says are among the best for digestion on flights.

“I think people are, rightly so, concerned they’re not going to feel as satiated with this vegetarian meal and [think] ‘I just need this piece of meat.’ And in the end … you really don’t need that much protein when you’re sitting in an airplane and relaxing,” he said. “It’s not like you’re heavy lifting.”

An hour later, you’re not going, ‘Ugh, I wish I didn’t have the meatballs.'”

Greg Frey Jr.

executive chef at Golden Door

Frey developed a Portobello mushroom meat ball” dish that’s served with a dairy-free risotto made with vegetable broth. The mushroom balls are steamed and served with an heirloom tomato sauce: “There’s not a lick of meat in there,” he said.

“It’s so satisfying and you get all those umami flavors,” he said. “The best part is an hour later, you’re not going, ‘Ugh, I wish I didn’t have the meatballs.'”

Supply chain puzzle

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

Airline chefs have to make sure ingredients are hardy enough to endure transportation and refrigeration, making stronger greens such as kale a better option than some more delicate varieties.

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

The airline is offering salads on more flights compared with before the pandemic, Rubertino said.

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

Airlines have been trying to source vegetables more locally, giving their catering companies fresher ingredients and cutting down on transportation time and costs. 

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

Vertical farm at Aerofarms in New Jersey

Leslie Josephs | CNBC

Once the ingredients are sourced, there’s the challenge of serving meals for thousands of passengers — made only more difficult by broad supply-chain and labor shortages and delicate ingredients.

Airlines have struggled to staff in a tight labor market, as have airport catering kitchens and other suppliers.

“There’s not a day that goes by where we don’t have issues with provisioning our aircraft with pillows, blankets, plastic cups, food,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said on a quarterly call in July.

Delta’s Henny said the carrier phased food back gradually to ease strains on service.

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

As food service expands, airlines are encouraging travelers to order their meals ahead of time so the carriers know what to load on the plane, whether it’s a special meal for religious or other dietary restrictions or just their favorite dishes in first class.

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

Susannah Carr, a flight attendant at a major airline and a member of the Association of Flight Attendants union, told CNBC that if the crew doesn’t have a vegetarian meal on board for a premium-class passenger, “We might pull some additional salad and make them a bigger salad” and incorporate a cheese plate.

“We’ve definitely gotten good at ‘McGyvering,'” she said.

(With inputs from CNBC)