It was Laksa – a spicy Malaysian noodle soup with seafood – and I had “pre-ordered” it in business class on Singapore Airlines for a two hour hop to Bali.
I would have been utterly thrilled to receive that in a restaurant, in fact I desperately wish I could find a restaurant anywhere in the area I live that could re-create it.
Asiana serves outstanding food in its long haul first class. If you like Japanese food especially, but even if you don’t, All Nippon’s first class meal service is truly outstanding.
Beyond that, though, no matter what the hype — it’s food in the sky, served under very difficult conditions. And you’re at an altitude where you simply don’t taste things the same way you do on the ground. There are things that can be done to make airline food better, but it’s highly unlikely an airline will be able to deliver the sort of culinary experience that you would be happy paying for under any other circumstance.
Now, you do need food. Yes, I’m talking to you US Airways, whose domestic offerings are highly limited. A flight that’s over three hours ought have more than a snack basket in the forward cabin.
But ultimately business class is all about the seat. There are things you can do to make it a nicer experience — have two blankets and an oversized pillow instead of just one pillow, for instance. EVA Airways serves Dom Perignon in business class! But they also have the seat which Cathay Pacific and a few others use that’s the best business seat flying in my view.
Which is why I cock my head a bit at the way that business class products are sometimes positioned as being so much more than that, a special experience in the air, when most of the time it remains mass transportation — though of course much more expensive and more comfortable mass transportation than the economy cabin.
Delta’s Big Food Announcement Today
Delta is launching a new partnership with James Beard Award winning restaurateur Danny Meyer for Delta’s business class shortened express meal service on their JFK-London Heathrow route.
Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group owns Blue Smoke restaurant, and Blue Smoke’s Executive Chef Chef de Cuisine will collaborate on the project.
The brands already have a relationship, Union Square Hospitality Group caters the Delta club at Citi Field (and does a darned fine job of it, too). And they have outposts in Delta’s redesigned JFK terminal as well.
Now, this is news just about the business class express meals on three daily New York-London flights. That in itself is hardly big news. But if three data points is the beginning of a trend, it comes in addition to chef-branded meals in business class on Delta’s Latin America routes and also the forward cabin of their premium transcon routes out of New York JFK (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and adding Seattle as well).
Celebrity chefs are the rage again for airlines.
At least their names are. Etihad has an ‘onboard chef’ concept in their Diamond first class, and it’s reasonably well-executed. US carriers just license the names of chefs and get them to consult on the meals, so they can brand themselves as offering an upmarket experience.
Fifteen years ago United partnered with Jacques Pépin. Then they started banding their own executive chef Gerry Gulli — those meals were awful. What were even worse were United’s Charlie Trotter meals.
Richard Sandoval restaurants all start out pretty good, they develop a buzz, and the quality of food quickly deteriorates. With American Airlines he simply consulted on the design of their new business class offerings, and when I first tried them last year on the oneworld MegaDO and then again flying to Sao Paolo they were pretty good.
I’ve long been pleased with American’s Marcus Samuelsson buy on board sandwiches in coach.
Recently airlines have been hiring wine consultants. Delta has theirs. So does Virgin America. American brought on Ken Chase in 2009 and has been sending him out to public events to showcase the thoughtfulness of their wines (most of which are still quite bad).
Marketing, or the Wrong Place to Invest?
As the economy improves, and in particular as planes fill up, and there was an increasing amount of business travel, that competition for those passengers essentially meant an arms race the way we saw back in 1999-2000 (when Delta flight attendants were being trumpeting for their wine education).
Except that Ken Chase was brought into American in 2009, so he serves as a counter example to the theory — although perhaps explainable that American wasn’t making the best business decisions at the time, hence their bankruptcy (perhaps too trite, as they certainly wound up in bankruptcy for reasons not at all exemplified by bringing in a wine consultant and not spending much on the wine they serve).
Airlines need to figure out how to ‘sell’ the hard product, the food and wine are the sizzle and the seat is the steak I suppose. I worry that there isn’t any there, there. And that all of the focus on a soft product that is going to fall flat simply leads to disappointment. Stick to your core strengths, invest in those. Delta’s marketing about its bedding is much better, especially when coupled with marketing of its seat (though its transpacific seat is much better than its new transatlantic one).
Craft the simple message, and hammer it home over and over and over and don’t distract with the name of the chef, I think.
Am I wrong?