May 22, 2024

On cloud wine

As COVID restrictions begin to ease, the onboard drinks service is making a return – ‘Cheers to that!’ says April Waterston

I walk onto a plane and am handed a cold glass of something sparkling. It’s a fantasy that has got me through many a dark lockdown day and it’s not just travel I’ve been longing for, but the joy of the journey.

The welcome drink is symbolic. It’s the first moment of relaxation and sets the tone for the journey to come, and post-pandemic this moment of joy is beginning to return.

The joy of travel 

Sandra Pineau-Boddison, inflight experience expert at The Hayward Partnership and president of the IFSA Foundation, says: “Prior to the pandemic the onboard F&B service was definitely a differentiator with airlines investing in service and product delivery. Now safety and hygiene have become key but as we continue through the recovery, F&B will again become something customers expect. I think right now the ‘joy’ is just to be able to travel, especially internationally, so we are now starting from a new base but the trend towards complimentary meal service in Economy on medium-longer haul domestic flights is emerging, and there is also a focus on new exciting retail options onboard.” 

Taking a hit

Both the onboard and wider beverage industry has been impacted dramatically by the pandemic. Onboard, additional hygiene measures aimed at reducing touchpoints for both passengers and crew meant most beverage service was removed in favour of essentials only, like bottled water. 

“I don’t think anyone who supplies F&B to the travel industry can honestly say that this pandemic hasn’t been devastating,” says Ed Matovcik, CEO at Intervine, an international wine management company serving the travel industry for more than 25 years. “We have all had to make painful cuts. Airlines started cancelling contracts almost immediately. If they have a company like Intervine managing their wine programme, we were the ones making the difficult phone calls…and hearing the screams on the other end of the line.  But that’s the critical role we and others provide. Unfortunately, many of us were stuck with a lot of inventory that suddenly had no home.” 

Considering the speed with which COVID hit, it is no surprise that airlines were faced with a mountain of perishable inventory. “By managing the full wine programmes of several US airlines, we were able to stop future shipments and evaluate the wines they had to determine what could be saved and what needed to be destroyed,” Matovcik explains. 

“When domestic travel resumed, international was still dead so we needed to be creative for our partners. Wine that was slated for international business but no longer needed was quickly moved to domestic use, like domestic First class. You would think that was easy but it required changing the tax status of each wine and lining up trucks in a trucking shortage.”

Intervine also helped American Airlines set up a Wine Club to help sell high-end wines that were no longer needed onboard. It was highly popular,  testament to the quality of the onboard offer.  

Single-serve future 

As travellers slowly return to the skies, airlines are beginning to reinstate a more ‘normal’ offerings, especially in the premium cabins but service has changed to reflect new hygiene anxieties. “Some that are serving wine are now passing out the 187ml size versus opening and pouring 750ml bottles,” explains Pineau-Boddison. “Airlines are also reviewing their options and how they can support the ‘new normal’ through products such as the mini soda/juice cans which require no ‘open and pour’ activities, in addition to handing out the widely-used full cans to the customer. 

“Traditionally, some airlines did not pass out full or mini cans due to higher costs and while cost is still a priority, safety and hygiene is currently more important. As traditional beverage services resume, airlines will look more at packaging and serving procedures. Single serve offerings will be here for some time.”   

Matovcik adds: “Business is starting to come back strongly, with airlines refilling their pipeline.  A bright spot of the pandemic was that it allowed us to explore other products and markets.  We recently started supplying water to Southwest Airlines for example with the very cool Open Water in cans.”

Another product jumping on the single-serve trend is Canvino, formally known as Cansecco. It launched a new-look, all-natural, vegan-friendly, 100% recyclable single-serving canned sparkling wine with strong provenance credentials and millennial-friendly pastel packaging. Launched for summer 2021, Canvino is available in two naturally-sparkling flavours: Bianco and Rosé.

Movers and shakers 

Airlines resuming F&B are in some cases upping their offer. For example, since July WestJet’s Business passengers have been offered newly-designed menus with full wine and beverage list and after take-off aperitifs and cocktails including a Mimosa and Classic Caesar. There’s a wide choice of spirits too including Smirnoff Vodka, multiple rums, Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin, a selection of whiskies and a cognac. 

“As we safely bring back the service our guests have been asking for we have taken this opportunity to enhance the onboard experience across all our cabins,” says Robert Antoniuk, WestJet chief operating officer. 

Pre-COVID, Delta Airlines announced an industry first – welcome drinks for all passengers in every cabin. More recently the airline has announced a new partnership with SweetWater Brewing Company. Since Memorial Day weekend, Delta customers on  domestic routes have been offered SweetWater Brewing Company’s exclusive Elevated H.A.Z.Y. IPA, created in partnership with Delta and formulated specifically to be enjoyed at 35,000 feet. 

“We know how a taste of something out of the ordinary – something created just for that moment – can elevate the journey,” says Delta’s Mike Crowley, vp onboard service operations. 

“Just as we’ve done with our wine programme, we wanted to create a beer that tastes as delicious in the sky as it does on the ground – and our hometown independent craft brewer, with a knack for tastes that meet the moment, was the perfect partner.”

Delta has also reintroduced its onboard snack and beverage service, punctuated by new single-serve Coca-Cola mini-cans, wellness-focused snacks and Tip Top Proper Cocktails.

United Airlines has resumed its buy-on-board service too using its new mobile wallet technology. “We know that having a wide variety of gourmet F&B options is important to our customers and we look forward to introducing these exciting, new options to enhance their flying experience,” says Toby Enqvist, chief customer officer for United. “Our new contactless payment technology enables us to safely introduce this new menu on select flights as passenger numbers grow.”

United’s revamped beverage menu features options sourced locally from United’s hubs, plus favourite iconic brands. It includes: White Claw Mango; Breckenridge Brewery Juice Drop Hazy IPA; Kona Brewing Co. Big Wave Golden Ale; Michelob ULTRA; Stella Artois, and wine options. 

Time to celebrate 

“Passengers are now more stressed than ever, flying for the first time in a long while,” concludes Matovcik. “Crew are key to making initial journeys enjoyable and less stressful and the return of F&B service can really help. Marking special occasions like International Champagne Day with special promotions can help too.  

“The travel industry has proven its resilience time and time again. I have no doubt it will welcome passengers back with creative, open and safe arms.” And a nice glass of chilled sparkling for me, I hope.