(eTN) – Now that the airlines have had a few years of experience selling food in the coach cabin instead of including it in the price of a ticket, they are applying the lessons they have learned to a new round of “buy on board” options.
The main lesson, it seems, is that passengers want real food, not just snacks. And the airlines are finding out that they have to offer better quality food to get fliers to hand over cash or their credit cards. That is even true of business travelers who expect to be reimbursed for the expense.
US Airways, Midwest Airlines and Delta are among the first carriers to shift their menus in a more nutritional and flavorful direction, offering options like a chilled black olive spaghetti salad ($8 on Delta), a chicken satay and skewered beef dinner ($10 on Midwest) or an orange chicken salad with roasted pecans ($7 on US Airways).
These selections are not available on all flights; typically they are offered on flights of at least three or four hours, in contrast to a $3 bag of trail mix or chips on shorter flights. But the goal is to offer more substantial meals on more flights, particularly as the airlines get better at predicting what will sell.
“That’s our biggest challenge: matching that demand to supply,” said Robert Schuerman, general manager of in-flight products for Midwest, which sells food prepared in kitchens at its hub airports and discards any meals that do not sell after a round-trip flight.
It is also one of the few domestic carriers to offer hot food in the coach cabin, a distinction shared by Continental Airlines — the only major domestic carrier that still serves free meals on flights longer than two hours during meal times.
As more airlines accept credit cards for on-board purchases, that technology also helps them keep track of inventory and improve their forecasting. For instance, Delta flight attendants “even key in if somebody asked for a roast beef sandwich but we had run out of it,” said Joan Vincenz, managing director for the airline’s global product development.
Another trend in the growing buy-on-board business is to enlist help from restaurateurs to create dishes that hold up in an aircraft cabin, where the dry air and high altitude can impair taste buds — perhaps one reason airline food gets a bad rap.
To create its new menu, Delta worked with Todd English, the chef and owner of Olives restaurant outside Boston, while Midwest hired Shawn Monroe, executive chef at Mader’s restaurant in Milwaukee.
Mr. Monroe said the job involved a learning curve, and cited pastries and anything fried as items that do not hold up well when reheated on a plane. Instead, he has focused on “flavor forward” dishes like Asian, Mexican or Mediterranean cuisine and avoids shortcuts like prepoached eggs.
“This is a retail product, so it has to look nice,” he said. “We’re creating something that you want to eat.”
Indeed, the fact that passengers are now paying for airline food may help raise the bar on taste.
Michelle Mohr, a spokeswoman for US Airways, said reactions from passengers and flight attendants led to a recent upgrade of the airline’s Inflight Cafe selections, toward more fresh options and away from a snack box that contained items like chips, salsa and candy.
“It was very heavy on the carbs and not an option that was particularly appealing to our customers — and they let us know that,” Ms. Mohr said.
That will come as a relief to frequent fliers like Sean Cullinan, a software developer who commutes between Washington and St. Croix in the United States Virgin Islands and is aghast at some of the snacks sold on American Airlines.
“One of their options is like a half-pound-size cookie and I’m thinking, ‘Who sits in their executive office and thinks this up?’” he said. “A, it’s not healthy and B, you arrive not feeling great.”
Like most of its competitors, American sells only snacks on shorter flights, like that Mega Bite Cookie, a bag of nuts or a container of chips ($3 each). On flights longer than three hours, American also sells light meals and is testing more fresh options this fall, including several sandwiches, an antipasto platter and premium drinks like Fuze Green Tea.
But Mr. Cullinan raised an issue that plagues many travelers who have to change planes, especially when there is a delay.
“It may be a two-hour flight, but if you have two of those back to back and you have a tight connection, you haven’t eaten in a long time,” he said.
That is the situation that caused Derek Young, who works for a biotechnology company in California, to try Delta’s buy-on-board offerings for the first time.
“I really had no choice after running through JFK to catch my flight,” he said, adding that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the $5 cheese plate and $8 chicken caprese sandwich he bought on the plane. “It was actually tasty,” he recalled, though he did wish there had been more crackers for the cheese.
Alaska Airlines is one carrier that has expanded its food service to shorter flights; its $5 “Picnic Packs” are now offered on all flights with beverage service, featuring items like cheese and crackers, dried fruit and an energy drink.
But so far, most buy-on-board menus do not cater to special diets needed, for example, by passengers who keep kosher, an issue the Orthodox Union, a kosher certification agency, is lobbying airlines to address.
Yet these food-for-sale programs are not a cash cow for carriers, said Mary Tabacchi, an associate professor who teaches airline management at Cornell. She pointed out that there were lots of hidden costs and challenges caused by variables like flight delays.
“It’s not just paying for the food, it’s paying for everything that goes along with it — including the gas to run it out to the carrier,” she said.
Some travelers who have posted feedback online about the airlines’ buy-on-board options have indicated that they are willing to pay more for better food, and that may be the key to a decent dining experience in the air.
“The quality depends on how much the customer is willing to pay, which ultimately feeds back to how much the airline can afford to spend,” Ms. Tabacchi said. “Honestly, it’s as simple as that.”