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The Eat Is On

In-flight food and wine service is getting tastier, more varied and more personalised. Reema Sisodia finds out why...

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. This little bit of advice is being taken very seriously by airlines, only they don’t restrict themselves to men. Customer is king and keeping his/her culinary senses satiated is clearly priority number one in this day and age of shrinking markets, thanks to 9/11 and all that.

Menus are being designed, selected and prepared with both eyes firmly fixed on the customer’s tastes. The traveller of today, it has been realised, no longer accepts what is dished out. He knows what he wants and nothing less than the best will do.

Deep Singhania, director-business development, Middle East and Far East Asia, Tata Infotech Ltd, is one such customer. He says, “In-flight services are crucial to a frequent flyer. The business traveller’s itinerary is stressful and demanding. It is imperative that his flight be a pleasant experience and he gets the best on board. In-flight services therefore are vital to building loyalty. Exceptional service while flying business class is not unique; it is the quality of what is provided to the economy class passenger that determines the standard of in-flight services.”

Some airlines have a team of wine tasters to adhere to standards of excellence

Only the best will do
Airlines are leaving no stone unturned to offer that something extra to keep the customer flying with them. Every item in the menu invariably has three ingredients — professionalism, planning and presentation.

The food and wine on board is designed after consultations with culinary experts. Often a panel of celebrity chefs are roped in when airlines draft menus and specialties. Client demand and requirement is analysed and a customised fare is then offered. Says Robert Stainoch, country manager, Austrian Airlines - India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives, “The chef who has won the maximum awards in Austria has been appointed by us to plan the menu and select the wines. The F&B department is left to his discretion. The focus on the Indian route is definitely on Indians with the highest care and consideration being given to the Indian palate.”

United Airlines is another case in point. Their international menus are created in consultation with an exclusive panel of celebrity chefs from across the globe which includes Sheila Lukins, Sam Choy, Martin Yan, Mary Sue Miliken and Susan Feniger. They have also partnered with the Culinary Institute Of America and Heart Smart International to prepare selections that are nutritious and delicious. They have also tie-ups with some of the leading wine brands of the world.

A spokesperson from United said, “In-flight services play a very important role in customer satisfaction and nothing takes the edge off an hectic day like a well prepared meal served on fine porcelain. Along with careful planning with professional inputs, presentation is another important aspect. We constantly innovate and upgrade the crockery and cutlery and redesign the table. The idea is to offer the perfect cuisine experience on board.”

Cheers to fine wine
Wine plays about as important a part as food in the perfect cuisine experience. No wonder that the effort put in by airlines to select their wines is almost as extensive.

In 1996, China Airlines formed a wine team to select the wines to be served on flight. Connoisseurs, appointed by the airlines, tasted and selected a wide variety of fine wine from across continents, with the final tasting held in Taipei.

Or take the case of South African Airlines. Rich Mkhondo, South African Airlines, executive manager, corporate communications, says, “We offer a variety of wine selections chosen at our annual South African Airways wine tasting and selection process. A panel of world renowned wine tasters is responsible for the selection. Every effort is made to ensure that we meet our passenger’s expectations and needs. Extensive research is undertaken on the basis of customer feedback. Our service providers have to adhere to strict standards of excellence.”

The creative menu
The food might be good, the wine might be the best but airlines still have to cope with that elusive thing called catering to individual tastes. Consequently, creativity and adaptability have become key factors whilst designing and providing menus.

Malaysian Airlines is offering ‘Satay’, a Malaysian delicacy, on board all flights for its business class passengers

Customising menus as per route specifications and catering to diverse needs of passengers are aspects which can be neglected only at the peril of seeing your customer fly with somebody else.

For example, Air Mauritius has introduced Jain meals on their Indian sector to cater to a specific clientele. Or take Air France’s strategy to meet the diverse expectations and needs of passengers. Their subsidiary Servair has chefs from France, Japan, China, Korea, India, etc. to provide regional fare.

Jean-Louis Calmettes, general manager, Air France -India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, says, “There are also units dedicated to preparing specific catering services (business aviation, official flights, charter meals, kosher or vegetarian meals). Over 50,000 meal-trays are prepared each day as per hundreds of different menus designed to satisfy the cultural and religious requirements of all our international passengers.”

Depending on passenger requests, the offering of airlines range from Hindu meal to baby and infant meal to non lactose meal, diabetic meal, high-fibre meal... the list is endless.

Swiss Air offers about 17 different types of meals, while Cathay Pacific has over 20 varieties of special meals.

Cathay Pacific has over 20 varieties of special meals

Taking everything into account
Apart from designing menus based on broad parameters such as passenger tastes and preferences, factors such as passenger profile, their food habits, the duration of the flight, the popularity of the local dishes and even the climate is taken into account when the menu is designed.

Welcome drinks and salads served are often based on the climate. For example, China Airlines serves coolers such as nimbu pani, khas sharbat and mango drinks during summers.

Menus are also changed as per seasons. Most airlines have four menus, one for every three months of the year starting spring, summer, autumn and winter. Says an official from Japan Airlines, “Repetition of the menu is just not acceptable. Every new season must have a new menu on board on every sector of our airlines.”

Menus are also changed as per seasons. Most airlines have four menus, one for every three months of the year starting spring, summer, autumn and winter

From speciality to superspeciality
In a situation where everybody is offering more, what do airlines do? They offer something different.

Cathay Pacific recently tied-up with a top bracket Hong-Kong based Chinese restaurant to provide a selection of specialised dishes to passengers on all class on most flights from Hong Kong till the end of January 2003. Quince Chong, Cathay Pacific’s general manager, in-flight service, said, “We are offering our passengers an all-new food experience on board. Our airline has also won two top international awards for in-flight wines. We always try to provide something extra like offering hot pot rice and special Chinese soup for passengers in the first class cabins of flights to and from North America.” Similarly, Malaysian Airlines is offering ‘Satay’, a Malaysian delicacy, on board all flights for its business class passengers.

Air Mauritius gives special Vanilla flavoured Mauritian tea and Green Island Mauritian white rum on board. Japanese beer Asahi and Kirin are offered on Japan Airlines.

In the case of South African Airways, in its new Airbus fleet, passengers will be able to eat whenever and whatever they prefer in an ‘a la carte’ fashion. These aircraft will be designed with modern galleys and equipment make food preparation and service easy and as per requirements of passengers.

China Airlines has designed special menus for the Indian sector. For flights from Taipei to New Delhi and the connecting destinations in US, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Australia, the airline has placed an Indian chef in Taipei to ensure the same levels of quality.

El Al has tied up with a number of quality Israeli food producers and companies. It recently entered a new cooperative tie-up with the Sheep & Goat Breeders Association and the El Al Chef Ltd. catering company due to which business class passengers on most El Al flights will be provided with gourmet goat and sheep cheeses as part of their breakfast menu, along with soft cheeses and yogurt.

The passenger - satiated and flying high
The money and effort that airlines put into their food and wines is well spent, if the comments of frequent flyers is anything to go by.

Suresh Thomas, managing director, BMG Crescendo (India) Ltd, says, “Airlines that offer a right blend of Asian hospitality and western professionalism tend to be rated high on the popularity charts.”

Catering to tastes and needs, like providing Indian cuisine on the Indian route connections, works. Ashank Desai, managing director, Mastek Ltd, says, “I definitely look upon the availability of Indian meals on board as a bonus while flying on international airlines.”

And so long as the fare is right the passenger will fly with the airline. Abraham Thomas, managing director, IBM India Limited, says, “I have my own preferences of menus while flying. Light meals and a lot of fresh fruits is what fits my bill just right. The culinary fare on some select airlines suit my palette which naturally predisposes me toward that specific airline.” And, that is the final word of most business travellers.

Order online, served on air

From September 5, 2002, Singapore Airlines has launched a new menu for its Book the Cook service. The exclusive advance in-flight meal ordering service which allows passengers to pre-select the dish of their choice from specially designed menus is the perfect case in point of in-flight food and wine service exclusivity at its best.

In the service, orders can be placed online at www. singaporeair.com. (for tickets booked online), by telephone or fax, at least 24 hours before the flight departure time.

The in-flight meal ordering service is the only service of its kind in air travel today. First introduced in 1998, the service is available to all First and Raffles Class passengers.

Book the Cook meals are available on all flights out of Singapore, (except on those to Kuala Lumpur and Penang) and on flights from Amsterdam, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Kaoshiung, London, Los Angeles, Melbourne, New York, Newark, San Francisco, Sydney, Taipei and Tokyo. Amsterdam and Dubai offered Book the Cook menus for the first time on September 5, 2002.

The new fare has several dishes that were created with the help of SIA’s International Culinary Panel. “We have changed more than 50 per cent of the Book the Cook dishes as requested by our passengers. In fact, the newly introduced Thai and Japanese dishes, and generally a lighter cuisine are top choices on passengers’ list,” said Eddie Ong, Vice President, In-flight Services. New to the menu are Japanese and Thai dishes such as Kyo-Kaiseki and Thai Green Curry Fish Balls Stuffed with Prawns. These are available on all First Class flights departing from Singapore. In addition, there is also a wide selection of specialities such as Lobster Thermidor, Roast Rack of Lamb, Seared Salmon Escalope, Chicken Curry Peranakan Style and Chicken Rice.