From plane awful to first class, is airline food changing?
I came to the subject of airline food with a lot of prejudices. These were undermined last month at the Fine Food Fair in Olympia when I tasted some seriously good ice cream from Beckleberry’s, a family-run company in Tyne and Wear. I was astounded to find out from the father and son duo that run the company that they were making ice cream for Virgin Atlantic’s premium economy passengers.
Around the corner I met Keith Gill, a co-founder of the business that created Phileas Fogg crisps, a brand that helped start the posh crisp phenomenon. The business was sold for squillions (only to have the corporate buyers almost abandon the brand) and Keith and his partner Roger McKechnie set up the Tanfield Food Company. They make high-quality ready meals and soups that don’t need to be refrigerated (ambient foods), made from ingredients sourced from farmers in Northumbria. He too is making mile high food for the budget airlines.
Airline food is changing. No surprise given the recession, the losses that resulted from the volcano-induced shut down, widespread concerns about the environmental effects of flying, and the long backwash of effects from 9/11 that now make getting through an airport so unpleasant. All those conditions demand cutbacks and food is always frontline there - but that’s not, on the whole, the way things are going at 30,000 feet. Microwave panini a-go-go are just not going to take off.
- There’s a small but growing wave of artisan producers being brought into the business. New technology is making supply chains to airline caterers much simpler and more flexible than in the past.
- Passengers are a lot more savvy about food and are demanding something decent to eat - even if they have to pay for it.
- New businesses are coming into airline catering, giving the long-established giants a run for their money. Earlier this year Northern Foods, with decades of experience producing high-quality ready meals, won BA’s short-haul contract. DHL has also got in on the business - though their cooking skills are perhaps not so well known.
- Easyjet and its clones have taught passengers that paying for food might be a better way to eat in the air if you’re travelling economy. Business and first class are a different proposition as airline catering specialist Ian Rutter told us on The Food Programme. Even the classy airlines are probably only spending a pound on the entire economy meal - that’s the same budget a prison caterer would get per prisoner.
- Waste has become a big issue in airline catering; better quality means less to chuck out.
However the classiest meal I have ever had on an aeroplane was in the economy section of Air New Zealand in the 70s flying from Auckland to LA: one huge game pie was brought out on a trolley and each passenger was offered a slice. It was wonderful. Why can’t we have more of that? A great cheddar, some chutney and a tasty bread roll? Cumbrian ham, mustard and bread…
Have you had a first class food experience lately or have you been served-up something plane awful in economy?
Sheila Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.