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A matter of taste

Whether it’s buy-on-board or premium cabin food and beverages, airline catering is leaving its old image behind with a range of innovations, as Bernie Baldwin reports
Airline catering was, many years ago, a contentious topic. Often written off by many for lack of flavour, not only has that image long been left behind, but there has also been a further renaissance in this area of the business. This could arguably be due to the move by many airlines to have a buy-on-board policy, but is also driven in the premium cabins by the need for excellence. While it is still the case that sometimes passengers will buy purely because they are a captive audience, many more have become more discerning.
The airlines have therefore had to up their game and ensure the quality of food and beverages – and keep them at reasonable prices – to entice people to buy. In addition to providing the service, of course, airlines want to build their ancillary revenues. Success has come in varying degrees. AirAsia, for example, is so confident about its cuisine that, according to an interview in Singapore’s Straits Times with AirAsia Group CEO, Tony Fernandes, the airline is planning to start a fast-food restaurant with the carrier's inflight meals – including the best-selling nasi lemak – on the menu. While other airlines may not be seeking to highlight their inflight food this way, they are asking their suppliers to set new benchmarks in every cabin, as Alpha LSG’s Inflight Retail and Managed Services Director, Alan Hayes, testifies.
“The constant challenge for our Inflight Retail and Catering teams is to keep pushing the boundaries to come up with new concepts that enhance the overall inflight experience,” he says. “Finding new and exciting products that appeal to passengers is a key part of the process, which has seen the pre-order and buy-on-board categories continue to grow – with lots of new grazing/snacking concepts launching to good success in 2018-19. “We’ve capitalised on this with new products such as bar bites, Mediterranean Taster and Mezze Boxes – all retailing to a strong penetration. The rise in popularity of premium gin continues, and we’ve introduced new and innovative flavours that have maintained the growth in this category,” Hayes adds. With the World Travel Catering & Onboard Services Expo (WTCE) approaching, Hayes and his colleagues are focusing on the products to be highlighted there, including those scheduled to be launched.
“We’re in the process of launching a brand new innovative pre-order meal concept – with our launch customer in summer of this year,” he reports. “This is a new product, with all menus cooked from scratch, centrally produced and delivered in innovative fully recycled and recyclable packaging. This is one-way catering – with huge environmental benefit such as no wash requirements, fully recyclable and minimalistic packaging, as well as being completely biodegradable if the waste management strategy points that way.
“The portion sizes are broader than your standard airline economy and charter meal, meaning we expect customers to feel well-nourished after they have dined, with a feeling of value for money,” Hayes continues. “The initial customer feedback is one of excitement and a product they expect a good reaction from their customers on, both from a food quality and Net Promoter Scores perspective, as well as a positive reaction to the environmental benefits. “Within this project we’re also launching a brand new vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free product offering for breakfast, lunch and dinner – a growing and evolving trend, and another product that we expect some good excitement from once it launches,” he enthuses. According to its CEO, Wilbert de Louw, Netherlands- based Foodcase International introduced several new concepts over the past year.
One of them is the Tubes concept, which delivers wines and spirits in 10 cl drawn glass and transparent, recyclable PET tubes. The single dose, no waste vessels also have a long shelf life, and save 50% space and weight on board. “With this concept, we are a finalist for the On Board Awards,” de Louw reports. “The second product for which we are a finalist is our Tapas concept, which is now listed on more than 30 airlines in Europe.” Like Alpha LSG, Foodcase International will be at WTCE 2019. “We have over 20 new concepts and innovations which we will present together with our partners,” the CEO comments.
“At the Foodcase Piazza we will present, for example, a virtual reality galley handling and training concept for cabin crew, launched at KLM and now available for all airlines.” Also new is the ‘Super fresh’ meal box concept, gluten-free snacks and meals concept, a special type of coffee cup and frozen meals in cardboard packaging. “The ‘Super fresh’ meal boxes are freshly made (not frozen) starters, hot meals and desserts with a shelf life chilled of 30 days,” de Louw explains. “We’re also introducing edible coffee cups to minimise waste.” Working with the end customer, in this case airlines, is important when developing catering solutions which are attractive to the consumer.
“Most of our products are codeveloped with an airline and/or tested with airlines before launching. Our Tapas concept has been codeveloped with Transavia before scaling up to other airlines,” de Louw remarks. While Foodcase International and Alpha LSG work across the board on food and beverages as well as packaging concepts, other suppliers remain specialised, focusing on bringing new flavour combinations to the market. Making its debut at WTCE 2019 will be Silver Swift Drinks, founded by its CEO Rose Unwin in 2017, who will be looking for a strong reception from the airline market to its key products.
“We have a range of four award-winning premixed sparkling alcoholic drinks at 5% ABV [alcohol by volume], available in both glass bottles and slim cans. The cans are new this year. We have not worked with airlines before, so 2019 is the year for us to enter the travel sector,” Unwin explains. The four award winning sparkling alcoholic drinks – Wild Rose Gin Spritz, Orchard Pear Gin Tonic, Basil Blush Vodka Spritz and Tipsy Iced Tea Vodka Spritz – have been created using premium spirits and natural ingredients. “Our spritzers are vegan-friendly, free of refined sugar, gluten and artificial ingredients. We never exceed 98 calories per serve without compromising on taste,” Unwin says. >>

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