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Airlines Try to Whip Up Better Meals for Coach Fliers

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Airlines are trying to persuade economy-class passengers that they can buy meals on the plane as good as they would find in a restaurant.

American Airlines Group

AAL -3.72%

said Monday it is forming a partnership with Zoës Kitchen, a Mediterranean-inspired fast-casual dining chain, to offer a menu with choices including a pita-and-veggie meal with two types of hummus, a turkey “Gruben” sandwich, and waffles with hazelnut spread and fresh berries for breakfast.

Onboard menus are changing as airlines try to keep up with improved dining options at many airport terminals, with more people gravitating to healthier fare. “The fast-food restaurants are going away and more of the healthier concepts are moving into airports,” said Russ Brown, director of in-flight dining and retail at American. “That’s what we’re competing against.”

Other carriers also have revised their in-flight offerings.

Alaska Air Group

ALK -3.98%

revamped its menu over the summer to highlight West Coast produce.

United Continental Holdings

has added a bread pudding made with Chobani yogurt. And

Delta Air Lines

on Oct. 1 will update its in-flight menu of items available for purchase on North American flights of 1,400 miles or more.

Lisa Bauer, Delta’s vice president of onboard services, said the carrier has invested “millions upon millions” of dollars in better food for passengers.

“We do see a shift in the back of the airplane,” said Chris Kinsella, global account director at Gategroup, a caterer that works with American and other airlines. Economy-class customers also want more locally sourced options or regional brands, he said, nudging airlines to make upgrades.

Far from its fine-dining roots in the dawn of the jet age, airplane food became a synonym for disappointment and indigestion before free meals disappeared from most domestic flights as carriers fought rising costs and bankruptcies. Upscale, chef-inspired menus are routine in first and business classes, but economy Travelers are often stuck with unappetizing boxed food they have to pay for.

With the industry on track for its ninth consecutive year of profits, executives and shareholders are regaining their appetite for investing in feeding their passengers.

“We’ve done a lot of work to enhance the dining experience in premium, but the majority of customers fly in main cabin. Why don’t we give them the same attention?” American’s Mr. Brown said.

Serving fresh food at 35,000 feet is a logistical challenge. Meals have to be assembled before takeoff and remain tasty hours later. Caterers have to be coordinated around the country, and airlines try to avoid bringing too much food aboard to keep from adding weight and waste. Flavors are less intense at high altitudes.

American hopes the popularity of Zoës—the chain has expanded from about 20 locations a decade ago to more than 260 restaurants in 20 states—can help persuade travelers that food is worth buying on the plane or even ordering in advance. The two companies spent more than a year testing recipes, finding the right Manchego cheeses, roasted tomatoes and basil pesto. Together, they whittled 40 possible options down to the five items American will start serving in December. Prices range from $8.79 for a breakfast sandwich to $10.99 each for the Gruben sandwich and a chicken wrap, both served with cookies.

A turkey ‘Gruben’ sandwich is among the new menu items that American Airlines will offer passengers through a partnership with Zoës Kitchen, a fast-casual dining chain.


American Airlines

When U.S. airlines stopped giving away free food around 2001, meals “pivoted 180 degrees” from an expense to a potential revenue source, said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry research and advisory firm. But customers also expect more if they are going to open their wallets, he said.

It isn’t the first time airlines have tried to enhance their offerings. American in 2009 sold Boston Market sandwiches on some flights for about a year. United offered smoothies and yogurt parfaits.

Some passengers remain wary of airline meals, though. “I’d rather drink water than eat their food,” said Jomana Karam, a student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, as she recalled complimentary sandwiches that were served on a flight from Germany to the U.S.

But Nik Loukas, who runs a website that tracks airline food, said some European carriers have been successful convincing customers, including him, that it is worth paying €15 to €30 ($18 to $35) for better meals. “I’m happy to pay for these kind of things. I’m a firm believer it can impact your in-flight experience.”

Brett Catlin, Alaska Airlines’ managing director of guest products, said purchases have increased modestly since the new offerings became available. Among the carrier’s new menu items: a Cobb salad with mixed greens, rotisserie chicken, grilled asparagus, avocados and other ingredients.

“It more than pays for itself,” Mr. Catlin said.

Write to Alison Sider at [email protected] and Patrick McGroarty at [email protected]

Source : WSJ

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