Here’s How to Really Customize Inflight Dining and Get the Most Out of Flying First Class

In business class meals may be quite nice, Austrian Airlines and Singapore both stand out as carriers that do a great job. But it’s still an assembly line, you have a lot of passengers to feed. First class should be more customized.

American Airlines trademarked the phrase ‘Dine on Demand’ though in my experience that doesn’t actually mean flight crew will serve your meal on demand, instead they may demand you dine whenever they’re preparing food.

There’s really no airline that has the potential to customize dining the way that Etihad can in first class and most passengers don’t even realize it.

I’ve just flown a couple of long haul segments in Etihad first class, including the Airbus A380 First Apartment which I’ve taken several times.

I find Etihad’s First Apartment to be the best first class product in the world right now mostly because of the size of each seat. Instead of four seats across on the upper deck of the A380 you’ve got just two seats across — a single aisle on a widebody.

Some people find the bed too hard (I don’t) and others criticize the seat itself for not offering significant recline (it doesn’t turn into a bed, since you have a separate bed).

I’d agree with critics who see cutbacks in the food and beverage offerings. The shower isn’t as great as Emirates’ for sure. But it’s a shower. In the sky.

I think those are trivial issues considering the orders of magnitude more room per passenger than in any other airline first class.

But the piece that I think is perhaps most underrated is the inflight chef. I used to think it was a gimmick, and admittedly the outcome varies substantially by whom you get.

One member of the Etihad flight crew has real world kitchen experience, and they’re primarily responsible for cooking in the cabin. They’ll introduce themselves to you prior to takeoff, they’ll usually offer to customize your meal, but since you’re handed a menu and used to how airlines work most passengers just pick something that’s listed (or maybe take advantage of the ‘chef’s special’ described to you but not printed in the menu).

What I’ve started doing in Etihad first over the last couple of years is scanning the menu for ingredients and then decide what I wanted to eat, rather than ordering specific menu items presented to me.

So my eggs in the morning scrambled with lox? Sure. Or steak and eggs, and the eggs scrambled with emmental cheese? Sure. I want my risotto with mushrooms? Why not.

When the menu is just ‘a set of suggestions’ rather than ‘the list of things you can have’ you can really start to eat well in the sky — and so the cutback in the number of items being offered really doesn’t matter so much. The number of items on an Etihad first class menu is actually the number of identifiable ingredients factorial (n!).

Etihad’s first class meal service lets you really mix and match whatever you wish. Think ingredients, not menu choices. The menu is just there to give you some ideas, because for most people if they were just asked “what do you want?” they wouldn’t know what to say.

That’s the idea behind the Singapore Airlines Private Room lounge in Singapore. It’s not the most attractively-designed lounge, but the food service was originally conceived of as “we’ll make you whatever you wish.” The airline found that simply asking people what they want caused confusion and uncertainty, so the menu matters. But the menu shouldn’t be seen as a constraint.

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. Great post, and good suggestions.
    The problem is most people don’t have a clue–even if they see the “ingredients” before them, what to do. I remember dining at the Brown’s Hotel in London where every dish was served French style, finished tableside over burners on a gueridon. When they took your order, the head waiter asked us what kind of vegetables we would like. “Well what are our choices?” “Anything you’d like,” the head waiter replied. So after a moment of silence and everyone looking at one another, I took over and ordered for everyone. The rest of our party just didn’t know what to say when presented with the choice of “anything.”
    For me I took it as a challenge and opportunity and the results were magnificent. I’m sure the onboard Etihad chef enjoyed creating “off the menu” items for you as well…so it was a treat for both of you!

  2. Thanks for explaining this. I’m flying next month for the first time in F on the Etihad A380 BOM-AUH-JFK so I’ll look forward to experimenting with the menu.

  3. “I think those are trivial issues considering the orders of magnitude more room per passenger than in any other airline first class.”

    An order of magnitude is 10x. Two orders is 100x.

  4. You say “The number of items on an Etihad first class menu is actually the number of identifiable ingredients factorial (n!).” That’s not correct–that’s the number of ways to order n items (i.e., put n items in a sequence). It makes the order significant (e.g., it counts spam, eggs, and sausage as different from sausage, eggs, and spam), and it doesn’t count combinations in which one choice is missing (e.g., if the menu contains spam, eggs, and sausage, the combination of just eggs and sausage isn’t in the count).

    The number you’re looking for is 2^n (2 to the nth power, 2 x 2 x … x 2, with n copies of 2). That’s the number of choices where you make the choice of taking or leaving each menu item. It is counting “no to everything” as one of the 2^n choices, so if you want to exclude that, it’s 2^n – 1 choice.

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