Flights of fancy food

A new era in inflight catering puts soggy chicken on notice, writes Jane E. Fraser.

How do you like your steak?

Or would you prefer some tapas-style bites with a glass of wine?

It's a long way from the soggy chicken-and-rice offerings that we tend to associate with airline food - and thank goodness for that.

Better technology and competition are bringing a new era of inflight catering, with freshly cooked food, decent coffee and flexible dining options no longer the domain of those lucky few in first class.

Sure, you might not be having a medium-rare steak if you're wedged among 300 other passengers in economy class but step up to premium economy and you're getting into the realm of restaurant-style food.

And even in the basic economy cabin, where airlines have tended to concentrate little effort, changes are starting to filter through.

Aside from seating and service levels, inflight dining is one of the most effective ways for airlines to differentiate themselves from competitors, especially when it comes to the more lucrative passengers up the front of the plane.

And with the global financial crisis pushing many corporate travellers downstream to premium-economy cabins, the quality food is also flowing down through the classes.

"Many carriers have ditched first class and extended their 'premium'-class offering to a premium economy section," says aviation consultant Ian Thomas of CAPA Consulting.

"Premium economy has the trimmings of a business class-style menu, often with designer meals and complimentary champagne."

Technology is also playing a role, expanding the food types airlines are able to serve on board. Air New Zealand's new Boeing 777s, which will appear on Australian routes from the end of this year, will have new oven technology, allowing food to be cooked from scratch rather than simply reheated.

"This will be an industry first to have these ovens in all cabins," says manager of long-haul customer product and service at Air New Zealand, Matthew Cooper.

"They will allow us to do a range of things, from cooking from scratch, to reheating meals more quickly than conventional ovens do, to making fresh popcorn, to crisping up pizzas."

While it is only business-class passengers who will be dining on cooked-to-order steaks and slap-up bacon-and-egg breakfasts, Cooper says the airline is also making "significant changes" in the economy cabin, with a move towards grazing-style menus with greater choice and flexibility. The carrier is introducing a digital, in-seat meal ordering service that will be available in all cabins, although it will only be turned on outside of meal times for economy and premium-economy passengers.

Travellers will be able to use their inflight entertainment system to browse a menu of drinks and snacks, then order from their seat.

Cooper says economy-class passengers on night flights will be able to go to sleep soon after take-off, then choose from a range of "substantial" snacks when they wake up.

"Daylight flights are likely to be more of a grazing service, where different food items are circulated through the cabin on a regular basis," he says.

Cooper says the airline is aiming to move away from "more hot airline casseroles" to also include options such as gourmet burgers, salads, wraps and soups.

Culinary high-flyer concept a winner

If you don't have a celebrity chef, you're just not cool.

High-profile chefs and wine experts have become almost standard fixtures among the world's top airlines, bringing bucketfuls of marketing value along with their expertise.

Qantas has had impressive mileage out of its relationship with Neil Perry (pictured), while overseas airlines such as Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France have done similar things with top chefs from other countries.

This year marks a decade of guest chefs for Lufthansa and the German airline says it is continuing to develop the concept.

Hawaiian Airlines has worked with a single celebrity chef, Bev Gannon, for the past decade.

Gannon meets regularly with the airline's chefs around the world and says she expects the business and first-class meals served on the plane to be as good as those in her restaurants.

"Passengers are feeling pretty abused by the time they get to a flight ... bags opened, shoes off, baggies of liquids, body searches," Gannon says.

"We want them to find a small bit of sanctuary once they board the flight."

In another sign that the trend is far from over, Thai Airways is working on a "chef in the air" program for later in the year, with guest celebrity chefs designing menus — for passengers in all classes — for monthly campaigns.

Singapore Airlines also continues to invest in the celebrity chef concept, with a panel of eight masters, including Australia's Matt Moran and England's Gordon Ramsay, working on menus.

Australian wine expert Michael Hill Smith is also on Singapore Airlines' payroll, as part of a panel of international wine consultants.