Economy catering

By George Banks

George Banks had a long and illustrious career overseeing inflight catering for some of the world’s best airlines. Here, he questions what has become of the long haul Economy offer and asks if it’s time for a new approach and more investment

Check any airline website today and almost every one will show you wonderful meals and food product choices in First and Business.

But look to the back of the aircraft and Economy meal standards have gradually been eroded, a trend which seems to have particularly taken hold since the introduction and expansion of Business and Premium Economy cabins.

The old IATA standards, once maligned as restrictive, now appear positively generous in comparison with what’s offered today. Back then the offer was restricted to: a glass of juice, a cup of soup or a canape; a main course hot entrée with protein/fish/meat, two vegetables or one vegetable and a salad; fresh fruit, a pastry/dessert, or chocolate; and bread roll, butter, cheese, and crackers. Today’s Economy passengers would be delighted to receive a fraction of that!

Learning from the past

What happened to the plump prawn cocktails and delicious charcuterie selections of yesteryear? All these more luxurious items have been done away with, or replaced with a salad or a skimpy appetiser – carrot salad with raisins anyone?

But there’s no point looking back wistfully – times have changed and today’s airlines and passengers are obsessed by and driven by price. But examining the best of times can help us innovate new cost-effective touches and perhaps re-introduce some of the style and service of the past without busting the budget. Gone on many airlines are the nice welcome nibbles or nuts served with the free drinks, and some airlines are now even charging for drinks on long haul flights. Gone too, in many cases, is the double bar round before the meal, and the warm rolls offered from a basket with the meal.

While nuts with the drinks can be expensive, as well as an allergy risk, airlines could still offer something with the drinks round – cheese biscuits, pretzels, crisps or salted popcorn perhaps. And what of the small wrapped chocolate once enjoyed in Economy with coffee? Back in the 1980s, I remember two large foil-wrapped Bendicks mints on the Economy meal tray of British Caledonian, not something you see now, although passenger enthusiasm for sweet treats hasn’t abated. In most cases, the large tray size has been replaced by a smaller two-third-sized tray, and the second meal service on flights up to 11 hours has been replaced by a sandwich/snack.

Surely the second meal service on many long haul flights needs to be re-evaluated? Passengers look forward to a reasonable standard of hot or cold meal to help pass the time, tempt their jaded palates and combat the fatigue caused by cabin air – and a soggy pizza in a cardboard box doesn’t quite do it! United Airlines offered the McDonalds hamburger on certain flights in the 1990s for a while and a decent hamburger or chicken burger is the sort of meal passengers might well enjoy towards the end of a long flight.

Likewise, a properly-made good-sized Caesar salad would be well received and the aroma of warm freshly-baked chocolate cookies served with a glass of milk before landing on American Airlines domestic flights is a fond memory for many. Snacks served on the meal tray for eating later are an option too, such as the Graze box offered by British Airways and the perspex snack box containing a chocolate, chilli dip, crackers, cheese and Tic Tacs which is presented with some Emirates’ Economy meals

Money well spent

It’s not all bad news though, with British Airways recently announcing a major spending initiative on long haul Economy catering, and some U.S. carriers increasing the menu choice and portion sizes.

Qantas too, has revamped its long haul Economy menus on North American routes to offer three choices of main course, including a barramundi curry with green beans and jasmine rice; a honey-roasted chicken farro salad; or smoky barbecue beef with roast sweet potatoes. Interesting extras include garlic bread and a chocolate mousse dessert, as well as the option of Cadbury’s hot chocolate, and a chocolate on the tray too.

Innovative solutions

Qantas has always been innovative in its food style – a recent example being the revamp of its simple but popular noodle dishes, offering them in a black cardboard box with a bright red cutlery pack for domestic Economy passengers.

Interestingly, packaging specialists such as WK Thomas and Global-C report a dramatic if not revolutionary change in demand from many airlines which they believe is set to transform further the look, feel and format of Economy food service. Where tray meals are considered too expensive, pre-packaged ambient meal options have become increasingly common and they predict a shift towards more boxed disposable solutions containing pre-packed meal items.

They, and others, are working hard to blend functionality and convenience with packaging that also creates a novel experience, conveys a brand story and ticks environmental boxes in terms of recyclability or compostability. This kind of solution is new and could allow airlines to offer basic, but nevertheless good food in new lightweight ways, that require no tray, fit in the trolleys and are convenient and easy for the crew to serve.

Interestingly, Dan Air London had disposable air larders called ‘Sky Diners’ back in the late sixties. These were made of silver-coated cardboard and contained 18 disposable meal trays, significantly cutting catering weight.

Qantas has some of the longest flights in the industry and has been clever in its service plan, spreading out the timings to serve the main meal (although with no appetiser), and then the ice cream in the middle of the flight (ice cream is always popular onboard and an easy treat to offer which not all airlines embrace), along with a beef sliders, cheese and biscuits, Maltesers and fresh fruit. This way passengers are offered something new regularly, with a hot breakfast or fresh fruit plate too before landing.

Most airlines in the ultra long haul Economy sector have a ‘help yourself snack bar’ with items passengers can take from the galley in between meals such as chocolate bars, savoury biscuits and sandwiches. Hot noodle pots, an Asian comfort food now apparently popular the world over, are generally offered on request as a quick and easy to serve hot option.

While frozen meal specialists produce some excellent mains, weights have decreased and dishes are smaller. Very few flight kitchens produce fresh main meals for Economy now as volumes have become too great and the expertise lost. Meal weights have declined to such an extent that some aren’t sufficient to sustain passengers or absorb the alcohol served on a long flight. Cheese and crackers on the meal tray are largely gone, and where once the likes of Air France offered a full cheeseboard in Economy, now it’s generally replaced with a small processed serving.

Core constraints

Some of this decline is easily explained. If Economy galleys on long haul aircraft are reduced in size to squeeze in more seats, or to free up space for Business catering, the airline has no option but to reduce the size of its Economy meal tray for practical reasons, particularly if a second service is to be maintained.

If you’re trying to run three services on ultra long haul flights of 16 hours on an Airbus A380, for example, then two two-third sized trays can be offered with what is called a ‘bulk snack’. But in this scenario, spare a thought for the cabin crew who have to sort out and check up to a 1000 meal trays/meals in galleys that are so packed they can hardly move. Smaller galleys have unfortunately made it harder for cabin crew to deliver a professional service, but some innovations, such as the lock-in cardboard trays being developed by the likes of Global-C and Spiriant, have made the service more feasible.

Catering storage has never been generous and has now been further reduced with dry catering items now placed in overhead passenger storage racks. Gone are the days when airlines decided what size galley they wanted to best suit their service needs. Today, manufacturers no longer encourage changes in galley configurations and if changes from a standard galley are required it comes at a high cost. Ovens too are rarely tailored and manufacturers seem reluctant to innovate, although finally an oven has been produced for First which cooks from raw.

Microwave ovens fitted by some airlines are really the wrong vehicle for mass catering in most cases and spoil the product with harsh heating which will always, for example, make pastry soggy. Microwave ovens also have to be insulated against airline electronics so are generally used only in First or Business galleys as no oven manufacturer has yet produced a reliable model for Economy. Convection ovens are still best for reheating in this cabin.

Glassware, even for wine, and metal cutlery has been replaced by flimsy plastic in most cases. Gone too, is all the attractive china service once seen in Economy – like Varig’s meal tray with linen napkin; the memorable ivory china suites offered by Swissair; and the Royal Doulton china used by Wardair Canada.

Now Economy tableware is either disposable or of utilitarian melamine/plastic. If this has to be an area of compromise how about more interesting innovations, such as the individual wine servings that come in plastic stem glasses, or fun novelty cutlery. At least these give a branding opportunity or a sustainbility message when made from sugarcane or recyclables.

Preserving touchpoints

Stylish menu cards, rarely distributed in Economy now, were a great opportunity for marketing. On some airlines, advertising space is sold on the menu or it was used as a vehicle for entertainment, incorporating a crossword or quiz.

The crew distribution of the menu was also an important point of contact between the airline and the passenger, as was the offering of a boiled sweet. Both are opportunities that should not be dropped lightly.

With longer flights and tighter seat pitches surely it is time for airlines to re-think their meagre Economy services? The challenge is only growing – what, for example, will Qantas offer Economy passengers on it new 17-hour Perth-London Dreamliner service later this year? Let’s hope the catering team has had its thinking cap on and passengers will not just be left to go hungry!