Bad airline food has long been a cliché. But as airports increasingly roll out higher-end eateries, airlines, too, are upping their game, at least for premium passengers.
U.S. carriers are revamping their domestic flight menus, enlisting renowned chefs, and harvesting fresher ingredients to present fliers with better options for a healthy meal.
In November, Delta doubled the number of first class menu items it offers on short-haul domestic flights. Alaska Airlines’ economy passengers can buy a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich as well as other bites that reflect the mult-ethnic flavor of its home home of Seattle.
United launched menu items such as duck confit ravioli along with its new premium service between Newark and San Francisco and Los Angeles. And American is incorporating seasonal veggies to cater to health conscious customers traveling on transcontinental flights.
The improvements aren’t going unnoticed.
“Passenger ratings for the variety of airline food have risen significantly since 2012, ’’ says Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power. While on-time performance, and a clean jet are basics that passengers value and expect, he says, food can be a positive way to stand out from the pack. “It can be the next big differentiator for the airline experience.’’
Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita state University and co-author of the annual Airline QualityRating, says that the new menu upgrades may signal that the pendulum is swinging back toward the days before complimentary meals in coach virtually disappeared. They’re also a way to appease frustrated fliers.
“The flying public still isn’t happy,’’ Headley says, despite the airline industry’s improved operations and baggage handling. “So maybe food is one way they can say, ‘here’s a tangible plus.’ At least it’s one less thing that the traveler has to worry about.”
Delta is making its domestic first class offerings more healthful and varied, going from roughly a dozen to 24 different options on flights that travel between 900 and 1499 miles. Among the possible entrees: grilled shrimp with roasted corn and tomato salad, or lemongrass chicken with Japanese cobb salad.
The change reflects a renewed approach to food the airline first served on its international service, says Delta spokesman Michael Thomas. And he adds that the larger menu will hopefully keep frequent fliers from becoming bored with the same choices flight after flight.
“Essentially if you are a frequent flier with us, it will be several months before you would have a duplicate meal,’’ Thomas says.
Coach is not being left out. Delta offers complimentary snacks from nutritious food purveyor Luvo in all cabins on its West Coast shuttle flights, and free Luvo wraps to “comfort plus’’ passengers paying for extra leg room in economy on transcontinental flights from New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Next year will also bring tweaks to first class menus on longer haul domestic flights,, and eventually enhancements to food items that are for sale as well.
“When we talk to customers, it’s changes like the ones we’re making now, to provide more healthful, more tasteful, more varied food . .. that are moving the needle,’’ Thomas says.
In July, American debuted new options incorporating seasonal vegetables and inspired by renowned restaurateur Sam Choy on first class flights between Miami and Los Angeles and New York JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Menus in domestic first class cabins on other routes also got a reboot, adding such favorites as beef filet, shrimp and grits, and macaroni and cheese.
“We know our customers eating habits have been evolving and it’s one way we can be competitive,’’ says Barbara DeLollis, a spokeswoman for American Airlines. Along with other in-flight amenities the airline has added, serving better food is “yet another component of upgrading the customer experience.’’
Airlines are paying attention to even the smaller details. Virgin America began working with gourmet grocer Dean & Deluca this summer to provide snacks like spicy Cajunsnack mix and raw almonds. United is using only cage-free eggs in economy class entrees on domestic flights, as well as international flights leaving from U.S. airports.
And in October, JetBlue unveiled its own blue potato farm and garden at JFK’s Terminal Five, with one aim being to use the crops to make the TERRA Blues chips it serves in flight.
Headley isn’t certain however that if you build a better menu, customers will necessarily come.
“I don’t think the consumer is going to start flocking back to an airline because of the quality of the food,’’ he says. “The fact that they now have it, I think a lot of people will think ‘it’s about (darn) time.’”