March 2, 2024

Culinary delights at 30,000ft: Onboard travel catering

Travel catering is an essential aspect of the onboard services and passenger comfort industry. From the early days of basic sandwiches to modern culinary delights tailored to diverse tastes, onboard catering has evolved to suit consumer expectations and dynamics. But how are airlines continuing to deliver the wow factor to a customer base that is increasingly conscious of spending?

During the global pandemic, airlines all over the world suspended meal services to reduce overheads and human contact. This gave carriers an opportunity to reassess their practices and enhance their meal service.

Every link in the in-flight supply chain, from caterers to suppliers, underwent scrutiny. But now, with the industry on the road to regrowth, airlines are back to experimenting with fine dining to improve their services and cater to consumers’ ever-changing tastes. With Statista forecasting the global airline catering market is anticipated to reach approximately $21.8 billion by 2027, now is the time to leverage culinary delights onboard.

The beginning of inflight meals

In October 1918, aboard a Handley-Page flight from London to Paris, the first inflight meal was served. It was a cold lunchbox, pre-packed and sold for three shillings. Then, according to Richard Foss’s book, Food in the Air and Space: The History of Food and Drink in the Skies, Daimler Airway (part of British Airways) assigned a steward to greet passengers with glasses of fruit juice four years later.

Later in 1936, United Airlines made history by creating the “world’s first flight kitchen”, while during World War II, frozen foods were introduced to troops on long-haul flights. This wasn’t available to the public at first, but TWA (later, Trans World Airlines) commercialised this method. The airline pioneered the use of a quick-freezing, pre-cooking method, packaging, and shipping for onboard catering services.

Pan Am became the epitome of inflight dining luxury from the late 1930s through to the 1950s.

Celebrity chefs’ participation in the travel catering industry was also recognised as early as 1939. 40 years later, renowned French chef and TV host Raymond Oliver began working on UTA’s inflight menus.. Since then, several famous chefs have lent their culinary expertise to airlines, improving the inflight dining experience.

The art of fine dining at 30,000 feet

The airline business is also striving to keep up with travellers’ increasingly sophisticated tastes by offering plant-based meals, listing purveyors on menus, and even embracing fermentation in certain cooking methods. To stay competitive, the inflight catering services industry must explore innovative alternatives, balance costs with quality, re-strategise business practices, improve client relationships and enhance value chain processes.

Advancements in travel catering have included the introduction of the world’s first AI-powered robot to aid culinary operations at dnata. Developed by Moley Robotics and previewed at WTCE in 2023, the robot follows chef directions to make identical dishes. The novel solution offers consistent quality, great safety, and real-time parameter adaptability.

Another example is the construction of a $54 million, 120,000-square-foot facility at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), which serves approximately 3,200 meals and flight boxes

every day for Delta Air Lines. The Newrest kitchen receives Delta food orders 24 hours before flights, making timing crucial whilst allowing for the preparation of fresh meals.

Five-star dishes at 30,000 feet

Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Emirates have already received multiple accolades for their five-star dishes, which are served in first, business, and coach classes.

With Singapore Airlines’ International Culinary Panel, more diverse dishes are being served on their flights. Seven prominent chefs make up this panel, creating dishes for onboard fine dining inspired by their cultures and experiences. Passengers can select from a wide selection of meals and book them at least 24 hours prior to their flight. There is also a diverse range of Special Meals to choose from for those who have special dietary requirements.

Qatar Airways also offers freshly prepared meals, focusing on the quality of the ingredients. These airline cuisines also cater to special dietary requirements. Additionally, passengers in business and First Class can enhance their flight experience by pre-selecting their meals on Qatar Airways’ webpage.

Emirates has organised its menus into three categories: Short-haul flights, Medium-haul flights, and Long-haul flights, so that passengers can choose depending on their flight. On all hauls, Emirates serves meals on Royal Doulton fine bone china with Robert Welch cutlery.

Air India’s delicious new delights are another example of some of the best five-star dishes currently on flights. The carrier’s newly presented menus blend flavour and healthiness flawlessly, making it ideal for vegans and vegetarians who want to enjoy a suitable meal in the sky.

Popular airlines for great flying food

It’s well known that cabin pressure and altitude inflight affects taste buds’ sensitivity and causes dishes to taste blander, meaning airline meals need to be prepared more meticulously. When it comes to planning for this, Professor Charles Spence from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford states that “Umami-forward foods’ are ideal – ‘so tomato, anchovy, mushroom, aged cheese, and so on, all rich sources of umami, are likely to work well in the air. “

The following airlines have received recognition for their remarkable inflight cuisine, which transforms standard meals into memorable onboard catering experiences:

Singapore Airlines – the airline’s menu is famous for its international gourmet cuisine, especially its Haiananese Chicken Rice.

Emirates – offers a high-end dining experience to passengers that will make the flight more memorable. Lamb Biryani is its signature dish.

Turkish Airlines – serves Turkish and international dishes which differ from other airlines. The Meze Platter is the carrier’s specialty.

Qatar Airways – serves its award-winning and varied menu to passengers. The Grilled Salmon with Couscous is famous for being their best dish.

Cathay Pacific – known for introducing Cantonese and international flavours to their menu, the most popular item is the Dim Sum Sampler.

Japan Airlines – provides authentic Japanese cuisine, with Sushi and Sashimi their best meals.

Air France – gives passengers the exquisite taste of French culinary dishes, with Coq au Vin as the most popular dish.

Etihad Airways – integrates Arabian flavours into its many regional and international dishes, the most well-known of which is Chicken Machbous.

Qantas – provides a menu with Australian flavours and wines. Its best dish is its Barramundi with Quinoa Salad.

Thai Airways – renowned for its traditional Thai cuisine, with Pad Thai being the passengers’ favourite.

Swiss Airlines – provides passengers with traditional Swiss dishes, with Veal Fillet the most popular cuisine.

These airlines have shown that flying can offer an enjoyable culinary adventure. Customers are taken on a literal and figurative gastronomic journey that enhances the travel experience.

Airline and celebrity chef partnerships

In recent years, celebrity collaborations have brought together Michelin-starred chefs, restaurateurs, and television personalities with airline carriers to add a whole new dimension to the inflight dining experience. These partnerships usually involve creating special menus and gourmet dining programmes for passengers on specific flights or across an airline’s network.

One example is Tom Kerridge’s partnership with British Airways. British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal also joined forces with Michelin-star chef Simon Hulstone to create the airlines’ inflight Olympic menu.

The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong has also been entrusted with developing a menu for Cathay Pacific after Michelin-star Pino Lavarra, from Tosca, was tasked with developing a menu for the airline’s first-class passengers. Going back further, Joel Robuchon and Air France also collaborated in 2011.

Partnerships with celebrities help airlines to enhance their brand across a large demographic as they can attract more people with the campaigns.

Preparing for the future of airline meals

Airline catering has had to adjust to evolving sustainability standards and unpredictable demand in recent years. One of the unique challenges faced by the industry is finding safe food for passengers. With that in mind, airlines started to offer heat and serve meals that were affordable and delectable.

Aside from heat and serve meals, the three major themes in airline food and beverage are quality, higher handling standards and digitisation. Within these, quality can encompass many different elements and may include partnerships with local brands, improved food ingredients, expansion of healthy options, and transparency. Higher handling standards will value sustainability and sanitation while digitisation will focus on tech-based and mobile innovations such as F&B tracking & analytics, pre-order meals, buy-on-board demand, and contactless payment.

A world of culinary delights

In the ever-changing era of travel, carriers are looking to develop ways to revolutionise onboard catering. By balancing focuses on luxury, budget, diverse tastes, and passenger experience, culinary delights are more accessible and adaptable than before.

The future of onboard catering is set to embrace innovation, catering to passenger expectations with a focus on culinary diversity. Technical advancements and a greater emphasis on sustainability look set to continue to drive changes to industry.

WTCE is the leading global event for inflight catering, onboard services and passenger comfort. The 2024 exhibition is taking place from 28-30 May at the Hamburg Messe. To find out more and to register interest, visit