Compliments to the Chef

There are many components of the air travel experience that can change consumers’ perception of an airline. Flight costs, new levels of long-haul comfort, entertainment options and different routes are among these effective motivators to win over consumers. But there is one facet which will always be on the back foot (despite enormous amounts of effort to change people’s perceptions) . . . Airline food.


When it comes to flying, airline food is the eternal joke. It is endlessly called upon for use in the measurement scale at the other end from 5 star dining and is used as shorthand for describing any lukewarm or underwhelming culinary options. And unless you make a habit of flying in business or first-class, chances are you have grown up experiencing this underwhelming food gracing planes across the world.

To combat this international reputation airlines have been dedicating their efforts towards changing travellers’ perceptions.

Tastes have been changing in Australia. Thanks to shows such as Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules we are not only cooking more complex meals in our own homes but also demanding more impressive culinary experiences. Unfortunately for airlines, this is even more pertinent with air travel. Travelling to a different country is often strongly linked with experiencing their culture and this culture is increasingly tied into their unique and authentic food offer.

If you have chosen Italy as your holiday destination, you probably have thoughts of ancient artefacts, stony beaches, beautiful countryside . . . and pasta! Now imagine that you are served a rather disappointing pasta dish on the way over. With such high expectations from the food of this culture, it is very easy for airline food to fall short.

So how are the airlines combating this difficult dilemma? By enlisting some celebrity help.

Recognising our societal appreciation for ‘Master Chefs’, airlines across the world are engaging these culinary rockstars to design food offerings for flights. QANTAS hired Neil Perry. Virgin Australia has Luke Mangan in their kitchen. And Singapore Airlines put together an International Culinary Panel of high-profile chefs featuring our own Matt Moran.

Each of these chefs, and hundreds of others from around the world, are currently designing meals which will hopefully satisfy the culinary dreams of high flyers. With menus featuring Patagonian Toothfish, celeriac puree, pearl couscous and poached Hapuka (I just googled it . . . it’s a species of fish), it is hard to believe that anyone could complain about airline food anymore. Especially with these chefs’ brands stamped on the front of the boxes.

But I have one question. Are we actually meeting the average flyer’s needs with these elaborate food offerings? I don’t know about you, but the one determinant of enjoyment on my flights hasn’t been whether or not Patagonian Toothfish was served with my vegetables.

While brand partnerships usually work, there has to be some appreciation of both brands by the consumer. And this is where I think airlines are missing the mark. Is it really the Michelin stars that people are looking for or is it more along the lines of the latest initiative by Virgin Australia called The Pantry? The Pantry offers passengers the choice of lighter snacks such as sushi, sandwiches and olives throughout the flight catering for the desire to eat more on long flights.

Ultimately airlines are in a difficult quandary. Fixing the food offer isn’t going to make more people choose that airline. We are predictable and come back to the tried and true favourites of cost, comfort and route. But a particularly bad food offer could ruin a customer’s experience with the brand and make them swear off ever flying with that airline again. So maybe a particularly good offer could create intense brand loyalty?

I just don’t know if that starts with Patagonian Toothfish . . .