Apart from emergency landings, turbulence or screaming babies in the seat behind, it is the in-flight meal that can sometimes make the average flight memorable. For many tourists the in-flight meal signifies the start of their holiday; whereas for regular business flyers, the meal may form a frequent part of their weekly diet, so it is important for the airlines to get it right. A bad meal could tip the balance in the customer's mind between good or bad service.
It is so important to some travellers, that they have created a web site dedicated entirely to airline food and menus -- http://www.airlinemeals.net carries thousands of photos that airline food 'spotters' have obligingly photographed and posted on the web site!
The manufacturer's unenviable challenge is to produce enjoyable, high quality food that will please all. And, as no-frills travel companies push airline ticket prices lower, the money available to be spent on the catering side is ever decreasing. Events such as 9/11, which led to a massive dip in air travel, have also led to further cost-cutting and price pressure. The development process is, therefore, all about producing great-tasting, consistent food, within tight specification at the lowest possible cost.
There is no doubt that it is a tough market, particularly as the airlines often have a budget for an entire tray set and not just the food. Electronic tenders are also increasingly playing a part in this process, says Treena Davis, sales and marketing director at CFH Group, which owns frozen food producers Cook Enterprise in Standlake, Oxon and Delta Dailyfood in Rexham. The company produces a range of component type meals for every eating occasion from breakfast through to ethnic dinners.
On the surface, airline food development may seem similar to that of ready meals destined for high-street retail -- itself no stranger to price pressure -- but in-flight meals have several other limitations that developers have to work with. First, they have to ensure the meals are tailored to the often very specific passenger demographics, catering where necessary for ethnicity and different age groups which vary from airline to airline and on the routes flown.
Davis says: "Charters will specify a menu for a season with new meals being introduced in April and October. Whereas other carriers may do 20 meals rotated weekly or every month, depending on the type of route. This is because, whereas as people on charters only go away once or twice a year, city hopper airlines have more frequent flyers so require faster rotation."
The routes flown also influence the style of meals. British and European flights will have different menus to those going to the Middle East or USA because the passengers will have a different pallet, says Davis. "Typically you may have a request for five European choices, five ethnic choices and five vegetarian choices."
All the ready meals are precooked and then frozen. Orders for airline food can change up to a day before the flight leaves, so to ensure it can meet order deadlines, the CFH Group produces the meals and then freezes them up to six weeks prior to a menu launch. This allows for all the quality assurance procedures and the distribution, which can take up to two or three weeks, says Davis.
As with retail development, the company monitors the foodservice market and works with flavour houses and suppliers on future flavour trends to ensure it is giving consumers what they want. CFH employs two executive chefs in its Cook Enterprise division in Gloucester and one at Delta, along with a number of food technologists and can produce anything found in retail meals, such as chilli, lasagne, pasta or ethnic cuisine.
Davis says the set up is similar to retail where you are making to a full spec and brief, but you are limited to working within the specific confines of a three component tray with portion size varying from around 180g-200g, depending on the airline. The assembly process also makes the work far more manual than normal ready meal production.
Food and packaging has to be developed to look visually appealing, even after having been frozen, loaded on the planes and then reheated and served to passengers at 10,000m. This means recipes have to be pretty stable and unlikely to shift around too much in the container, and easy to eat should the flight get a little bumpy. But Davis believes this is achievable with most recipes with the right know-how.
Current recipe trends being picked up on from the foodservice sector, according to Davis, include that for Cajun flavours and for European pasta dishes with a contemporary twist, such as Arrabitas aubergine -- an Italian take on aubergines. Traditional British is also popular at the moment, but with something exotic added. Comfort-eating is also coming back, so traditional dishes, such as pork and chives with apple gravy are finding their way on to menus, she says.
CFH Group can provide the meals in either foil or crystalline polyethylene terephthalate (CPET) trays. Until recently, most airlines were using foil trays but CPET is now more widely used. According to Davis it offers greater manufacturing efficiency especially in terms of sealing.
The frozen meals are designed to be reheated by the flight attendants in purpose-built electric ovens -- microwaves and planes don't go well together, apparently, as the high frequency radio waves could scramble the pilots' instruments!
The performance of the electric ovens can vary widely, says Davis: "Some airline ovens are old and give out a huge amount of heat. An exposed element could melt the CPET trays so these airlines would have to use foil trays. Many aircraft are being refurbished, however, and can now stand ovenable card or CPET."
The variability of the ovens, and the possibility of delays, along with the many demands placed on the flight attendants, means that the meals could be sitting in the ovens for longer than they should. To counter this, developers must ensure that a recipe has a wide cooking tolerance, says Davis.
"It needs to withstand cooking to high or variable heat ranges and still come out looking and tasting good. For example if too small an amount of sauce is used and there is some kind of delay the meal will dry out."
Development is definitely a challenge when making food to be eaten at altitude and at funny hours, say Charlotte Penn, corporate development chef with Alpha Airports Group, not least because flying at altitude effects your ability to taste. Studies have shown that passengers' taste buds are affected by the change in air pressure and the flight can also dehydrate passengers, which means they can lose up to 30% of their ability to taste food.
Undaunted by this challenge Penn, who has just had two baguette recipes listed with Easy Jet, says: "The last thing we would want to do is add large amounts of salt or monosodium glutamate to add taste."
She says the answer lies in using lots of tasty herbs and spices and basic good ingredients. Her baguette, for example, uses char-grilled chicken with creme fraiche instead of low-fat mayonnaise, along with spring onion. She is all for replacing what she calls bland lollo rosso lettuce leaves with lollo blondo, which she says is all the rage in European coffee bars and restaurants.
Penn aims to bring the best of high-street retail fare into the air and Alpha recently launched a new tray concept based on high-street retail principles. This saw the conventional meal tray replaced by a disposable roll mat. Cold items such as cheese, biscuits and desserts are contained within the wrap which on opening becomes a table cloth for the meal. A plastic tidy bag is also provided enabling passengers to clear their meal away when finished to give them more room to move. In addition to saving on trays and dishes, it speeds food delivery for flight staff.
The style of the disposable equipment reflects that found in high-street cafes and sandwich chains and at the same time offers the airlines crucial cost benefits.
In terms of recipes Penn sees the "artisan replica" trend as a popular one with consumers. And in the UK, restaurant chefs are looking back to really classic recipes, she says. "The likes of Garry Rhodes and Nigel Slater, in particular, are pushing British cooking and many chefs are going back to recipes found in old cookery books."
Another trend for adults is pampering, she says: "We all work so hard, that in our time off we really want to be pampered. Also as we become more literate about food, adults also like foods with a good story."
Branded products are also something we may increasingly see on the menu, as consumers like to identify with particular brands, she says.
Airline food has not escaped the watchful eye of nutritionists and consumer lobby groups and Penn admits health is becoming a bigger issue, but she is fairly pragmatic about it: "There's no point in making healthy food that is going to end up in the bin."
The challenge, as ever, is in making healthy food that children will eat. "Children want food that is fun," she says.
A recent survey carried out for package tour operator Thomas Cook found that even when it comes to airline meals, most youngsters opt for fast food favourites.
Of the 500 children aged 5-15 that were surveyed, 23% said they favoured chicken nuggets and chips; 19% said pizza; 11% burgers; 10% fish and chips and 8% sausage and chips. More surprisingly, perhaps, 18% said they wanted traditional British fare of roast or casseroled meat with potatoes and veg. Curry was the top choice for only 8%.
Worryingly, only 2% seem to have got the healthy eating message, naming salads, fresh fruit, baked potatoes or salad sandwiches as preferred dishes.
However, any food that keeps children from screaming on long haul flights must be worth trying. FM