Airline Marketing Aside, Business Class is About the Seat and It’s Not a Restaurant

Yesterday I wrote about the best meal I’ve ever eaten on a plane.

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?

(HT: Jon-Bentley)

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I could care less about the food. Give me a glass or two of decent wine and flat seat, dim the cabin lights and I’m good to go! I’ll eat on the ground!

  2. Aren’t you in the DC area? You should be able to get a decent bowl of laksa at an indonesian/malaysian/singaporean restaurant.

  3. The food is nice to have – it saves me time on the ground or in the airport – but it’s not a strong consideration as to which flight or airline. Seat matters more. This said by someone who just redeemed for old C on LH because it was the only non-Y option available on any *A carrier to/from where I wanted to go.

  4. Sorry, just catching up my “view from the wing”… looks like a bunch of people already commented on the original link re: laksa in the DC area.

  5. Extras matters to people who actually pay $$ for the seats. A regular business traveler would say “Get me a lie flat seat and make sure they have good food/wine”. You will never hear “Get me on the diamond/platinum/solstys seat”.

  6. Have you tried laksa at Malaysia Kopitiam? I’ve only been there once and know very little about the cuisine, but some people I know really rave about the place, and laksa’s on the menu…

  7. I am with you 100% on this one. TATL and TPAC Business class meals are almost always disapointing and often barely edible. I find the so-called celebrity chefs rarely add anything useful to the final product.

    Would much prefer if US carriers would stock subway sandwiches for domestic flights (LOT does a variation and they are surprisingly tasty) rather than reheated crapola.

    Do the Japanese carrier offer sashimi? I would think it would not be difficult to supercool meals over dry ice – my appetizers always come out fresh – and then serve within 2 hours of takeoff. Much easier to preserve cold food than to perfectly reheat food which always ends up overcooked. Similarly the United “asian noodle” box is something I always look forward to – wish it was an option for F.

    BTW two of the best meals I ever ate were served on shorter flights – NZ served rack of lamb between SYD-AKL and a wonderful AF meal from FCO to CDG (in economy no less).

  8. All very true. Face it, a 777’s galley is no place to make an effort at haute cuisine – even in first. Airlines CAN, however, make an effort with simple, cold, items. Think shrimp, smoked fish, and good cheeses (that means not the crap I can buy at a grocery store that UA serves in F.). Airlines should just give up on hot dishes with complex preparations – even of some celebrity chef purportedly made them for the passenger. I’ll satisfy my interest in them when I land.

  9. I am a fan of the Lufthansa “Star Chefs” program where the menu usually has selections from the head chef of a famous restaurant that is typically located in a Ritz Carlton or Mandarin Oriental hotel (not sure if there is intentional cross-branding there). As long as you order one of the chef’s selections, it is usually pretty good. I’ve flown long haul biz or first on maybe 20 different airlines over the last 10 years. For me, Singapore Air is still tops, if you book the cook. I also like the fact that SQ makes eggs to order for breakfast. Normally I won’t eat eggs on a plane because they are usually dry and overcooked, but make an exception when flying SQ.

  10. Regardless of whichever Celeb Chef signs off on the food, it’s still going to be provided by LSG and prepped by a disgruntled, over-stressed FA who’s running scared for their working conditions and job security. Critiquing domestic ‘merican-flagged airline food is akin to admiring the the workmanship of a sweatshop seamstress.

    How is it that TK can serve a tasty, inviting, moderately filling plated meal on a 1hr flight from IST to IZM, but DL can’t do better than wave a snack basket under my nose once on a 2 hour flight?

  11. I thought this is a brilliant marketing relationship. Blue Smoke is Danny Meyer’s casual restaurant, serving BBQ and pulled pork sandwiches. There is even an outpost at JFK T4. The bold flavor and simple preparation will make it easier for the FA to replicate the experience without diluting the brand image of the restaurant (unlike those Charlie Trotter meals – ugh).

  12. “ultimately business class is all about the seat” ??
    Could NOT disagree more.

    Let’s imagine business class where everything is about the seat. There would be no:
    – priority check in
    – priority security line
    – lounges
    – priority gate boarding
    – cabin crew/passenger ratio same as economy
    – soft pillow and blanket
    – amenity kit with the essentials
    – drinks including decent wine (just mass-market screwtops)
    – and yes, better food served in something that’s not plastic.

    Sorry, but EVERYTHING contributes to business class, and the most important metric, willingness to repurchase and to recommend.

    Yes, having a lie-flat seat is a requirement, no arguments there, but many airlines offer them (within a year, all of them, including B6 but except VX, on the JFK-SFO/LAX route). So the only differentiation is how they do the rest well, and fulfilling the human’s most important primal crave — the one for food — is definitely one of them. Keep in mind that the true road warrior will eat 100+ meal/year on flights. You bet they will switch airlines over a better meal.

    I do agree that’s all about the actual food on the plate and not the celebrity chef. Hence the popularity of food threads in sites like FlyerTalk, filled with recommendations (as in, never order the beef on BA’s business class but the fish is always delicious) and rants (as in, avoid domestic US premium class as you will end up starving).

    Where the chef’s involvement translates into better food, then it’s welcomed; if not, then it’s a waste of the airline’s marketing dollars.

  13. Hillrider, most of us elites already receive the pre-boarding services regardless of Y/C/F cabin. Personally I could care less about the amenity kit (I bring what I need) or the free drinks (might be better for my overall health if they weren’t comp’d). Better food is certainly valued but far too much effort is put into celebrity chef nonsense when common sense would yield a far better product.

    I work with many road warriors who travel far more than this 1K and not one selects airlines based on food – rather it’s schedule (times, best connections), seats and finally service (with Asian carriers at top of list).

  14. I’ve walked off of many DL JFK-LAX flights raving about the Michael Chiarello meal I had. They are not exotic, elaborate concoctions rather multi-course Italian meals with some extra attention paid to the details. The antipasti course is a brilliant idea because there is often something for everyone and its several small tastes rather than one appetizer that might be meh. It shows that decent meals are possible and if anything is involvement is ‘under-branded’ helping manage expectations he’d be cooking each meal himself.

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