By Jessica Pook

Airlines that invest in their onboard kids offer boost brand loyalty and improve everyone’s passenger experience. Jessica Pook embraces her inner child

You may be the most child-loving, Mary Poppins-like character in the world, but step onboard and you can be forgiven for fearing the toddlers.

Flying with young children can be stressful for everyone involved but as first-time flyers get younger and kids travel more frequently, airlines are being challenged to keep them content in their seats – for the sake of us all.

Inflight kids’ offers have come a long way from a simple dot-to-dot book and a juice box, and getting it right means tackling a range of issues.

Richard Wake, creative and marketing director of En Route, describes how they go about creating onboard product for children. He says: “As with any product development, it is essential to fully understand the customer, their requirements or needs, and what drives them as a consumer. We need to understand what makes them want to eat something, play with something or more importantly, in a buy-on-board context, what will convince their parents to buy the product. Conducting focus groups with parents, children and, in some cases, cabin crew is important to gain understanding of how different user groups will react to product concepts.”

As this deeper understanding takes hold, the kids’ meal offering has changed significantly, with airlines putting nutrition and dietary requirements far higher up the agenda.

The touch of tech

Technology has got involved too, touching everything even interactions with kids, as the physical and digital worlds are now so interlinked, even for the very young. Wake says: “Products need elements of discovery and gamification which are not necessarily apparent immediately. This can create surprise and delight, and keep children entertained for longer.”

LSG Sky Chefs reports that meals now need to be healthy, sustainable (less meat and locally sourced) and reflect different ethnic origins.

Josefine Corsten, of LSG Group, says: “We consider baby and child meals as ‘special meals’ and have developed guidelines for both. Foods should be easy to chew, served in bite-sized pieces, and contain sufficient vitamins and minerals. We avoid potential allergy-causing ingredients such as nuts and seeds and during meal preparation fatty sauces and hot spices are avoided. And it is important the meals are prepared to look appealing.”

The caterer has also worked with airlines that take the process to another level. “Some airlines invite children to cook together with the chefs and thus develop meals jointly with them,” she adds.
And while the attention to a meal’s health credentials clearly responds to parental concerns, it is presentation that can really make or break the kids’ culinary experience.

Increasingly a healthy, tasty dish needs to become something of an interactive experience – and that has pushed the role of packaging to the fore.

Kids are very familiar with snack boxes from high-street food chains and these can be an option onboard. WK Thomas has created hippo and dinosaur snack boxes that double as a cardboard puppet. The design is colourful and fun and the dual functionality adds an entertainment value beyond meal time.

“However nutritious or delicious the food, if the pack doesn’t win the child over, it won’t even get opened,” says Des Thurgood, sales director at WK Thomas. “And the packaging needs to be properly functional – keeping food fresh too. It needs to hold and deliver the food in a practical way in the confined space available. Packaging for kids also has to take account of their small hands and fingers so it is easy to open and close, as well as easy to carry.”

Creative change

Air Europa has worked on its offer coming up with the Airplane Food Tray for children. A tray-shaped meal box for children aged from two to 12. In addition to the food items, it includes hidden games inside and on the pack to keep children occupied while they eat. The tray also features a mini poster with activities, stickers, coloured pencils and more activities on the back.

Similarly, En Route has developed its ‘Scribbles and Nibbles’ product – a compact snack and activity pack given to children at the beginning of a flight to keep them occupied prior to their meal.

The trend towards combining food and entertainment has done nothing to dampen the creativity of amenity kit suppliers. Kids packs have evolved into sophisticated bundles full of colourful characters, toys, games and books all with an educational element, stimulating, engaging and plenty of post-flight uses.

Buzz has championed top-end, high-profile brand alliances which sees Disney-themed kids’ kits onboard Singapore Airlines, featuring characters from Star Wars, Frozen, The Incredibles and Micky Mouse, all instantly recognisable and including items to suit all ages – pencil case, interactive games, splash-proof pouch, plush toys and stationary.

It has also worked on bespoke character packs for airlines, creating superhero-themed packs for the Oryx Kids Club on Qatar Airways designed to inspire a spirit of adventure, exploration and teamwork; and colourful Creature Crew characters for Saudi Airlines which help kids understand the roles of cabin crew, pilots and ground staff in a fun, engaging way.

Newer to the mix is a focus on role play inflight. Kaelis launched a new range for Air Astana with children’s kits, themed around professions. Each of the six kit concepts features a specific character: Super Chef, Smashing SuperHero, Voluntary Vet, Amazing Architect, Dangerous Detective and Extreme Explorer. The durable quality of the play items encourages post-flight use too, cutting potential onboard wastage.

Meanwhile, Milk Jnr’s & Kidworks creates content that considers not just the young traveller but the whole family. Its Ocean Travel Adventures kit for Marella Cruises encourages independent play but also includes games that drive engagement with other family members, creating a memorable experience for across the generations.

For kids who want to play at being grown ups Bayart Innovations has created a kids amenity kit for Alitalia which mirrors adult kits with headphones, eyemask, socks and toothbrush in addition to activities.

Sustainable credentials

The Adventure Group, supplying Turkish Airlines, has focused on traditional play with a sustainable approach developed around a Play Natural Toy Set. Said to be the first entirely natural product in its category, it avoids plastic even in packaging and includes a retro fabric pilot’s hat in five assorted colours, with felt glasses (suitable for three-12 years olds), two wooden aircraft, five wooden movable airline figures, four dancing animals and a booklet on the figures and animals. All items are packaged in a cotton bag. The travel themed toys also educate kids about the roles and responsibilities of airline characters and endangered animals.

Craftis, specialists in the children’s activities, reports growing interest in this sustainability trend. “Airlines want to move away from plastics and are looking towards retro-style solutions. Items such as our brown kraft range have a rustic appeal as well as being environmentally-friendly. It’s also important that kits have a reusability element, extending brand leverage and not just ending up as rubbish,” says Michael Halpin.

The Craftis ethos is to encourage family interaction and get children away from technology, but the company acknowledges that some of the most popular amenity kits are those that channel social media brand engagement, using selfie props and frames, for example.

Halpin adds: “Our aim is to successfully engage them, not just for their time onboard, but also in a way that takes the brand beyond the journey to become a keepsake.”

Buzz and AK-Service have already experimented with augmented reality for kids kits. AK Service launched a kit for Rossiya Airlines with traditional domino set but combined it with an activity book with AR stickers that bring characters to life on a smartphone.

It’s tough being a parent today, navigating child obesity, online risks, discipline and educational issues, and clearly anything airlines and their suppliers can do to help, brings benefits well beyond the child itself. Certainly anything that keeps the back of my seat from being kicked and rocked deserves top marks and full recognition in my book!