Airlines test different inflight dining strategies, including FOOD as IFE

July 19, 2013

Services

Virgin America snack box main Airlines test different inflight dining strategies, including FOOD as IFE

Economy class passengers on short domestic Turkish Airlines flights experience the unexpected in modern air travel. It’s an occurrence so rare it harkens back to a more pleasant bygone era. What is this aberration, this outlier that can spur such nostalgia? Nothing more than the simple, straightforward complimentary snack box (see below, right).

Turkish snack box 300x210 Airlines test different inflight dining strategies, including FOOD as IFEWhat was once relatively standard fare – a small sandwich, side and dessert – today feels like manna from heaven as many airlines transition to strictly ‘a la carte’ offerings, charging for everything from pretzels to coffee.

“In the airline industry, many travellers feel as if the free items [they] had once been accustomed to have been stripped away from them,” says Dr. Ali Genc, senior VP of Turkish Airlines’ media relations. “We continue to offer them and we have seen that many of our passengers are pleasantly surprised. Rather than feeling nickel and dimed, our customers feel as if they are truly getting their money’s worth when they fly with us.”

MONEY TALKS

But, for many carriers, those nickels and dimes are adding up to big ancillary revenue gains as they transition to new ‘a la carte’ inflight food and beverage programmes.

One of those carriers, Frontier Airlines in Mary announced it would begin charging economy class passengers $1.99 for coffee, tea, soda and juice, what many travellers viewed as one of the few remaining complimentary services left on US carriers. “We are working to provide our customers with the lowest fare possible by unbundling our product. This way, customers pay for only what they use,” says Frontier’s manager of corporate communications, Kate O’Malley. “This change will help us reduce our costs through weight and fuel savings, which is savings we can pass on to our customers.”

It’s just the latest move by an airline to differentiate its dining strategy, but one that leaves many travellers unsure about what, if anything, they should expect now on a flight. Will they get a great complimentary meal, or, well, peanuts? And maybe not even those.

BESPOKE DINING

According to Josefine Corsten, senior VP of corporate communications and marketing for inflight services provider Lufthansa’s LSG Sky Chefs, “The days of a one-size-fits-all approach to airline catering are long over”.

snack box 1 300x180 Airlines test different inflight dining strategies, including FOOD as IFE“Some of our customers have increased their onboard spending [as it relates to dining], while others have reduced it. This might also differ from class to class,” says Corsten of LSG’s more than 300 airline clients, which include Czech Airlines and Alaska Airlines. “Our customers want individualised concepts.”

And those individualised dining concepts depend greatly on how airlines want to position themselves in a crowded marketplace.

“Unfortunately it’s about the bottom line,” says Nikos Loukas, founder of airline dining website InflightFeed.com. “Inflight catering is a cost-centre for airlines, so they need to make it profitable.

In some cases, this means finding way to “get more out of the customer” to increase revenues. “Whereas other airlines are positioning themselves as great food, great inflight entertainment, all that kind of stuff,” says Loukas.

FOOD AS IFE

Several airlines are also beginning to recognize the benefit in combining food and inflight entertainment together.

snack box 2 300x203 Airlines test different inflight dining strategies, including FOOD as IFEIn 2010, Turkish Airways instituted a Flying Chef programme, which sees employees in chef uniforms preparing and serving meals onboard international flights. According to Genc, the test programme proved so popular amongst passengers that it was made permanent.

“The aim for our Flying Chef services was to create an inflight dining experience unlike any other; one that our passengers would not soon forget,” he says, likening the programme to “dining in a five-star restaurant above the clouds”.

Loukas has seen the Flying Chefs firsthand and says the programme works because it “adds to the entertainment value of the flight.” And Turkish Airlines isn’t alone in seeing the wisdom of tying food to IFE.

In April, Virgin America (whose new snack box is pictured at top of page) built upon its already entertaining seat-to-seat chat feature, rolling out a seat-to-seat delivery service that allows passengers to order drinks or food via the IFE and send it directly to fellow passengers. “People have definitely had fun with that; this is kind of like the next level in our IFE,” says Luanne Calvert, Virgin America’s VP of marketing and communications.

“If you can chat with someone, what if you also want to send them a cup of tea or a peanut butter sandwich or a cocktail?” she says. Though Virgin America has yet to collect data points on the new inflight feature, Calvert reports that the carrier has received positive feedback thus far.

For Loukas, linking dining and IFE isn’t just a gimmick or a passing fad, but a shrewd business decision that plays to a largely captive audience. “If there’s no movie playing, [food] is your entertainment,” he said. “That’s what’s keeping you occupied.”

CREATIVE – AND ENTERTAINING – DESIGN

And airlines are going to greater lengths to ensure that not just the food, but the packaging it comes in, is as entertaining as possible. Loukas describes a recent meal on an Aer Lingus flight that was served in a “really cool”, elaborate bento-like box. “It’s good fun,” he says. “It takes you a good sort of ten minutes to just open it up and have a look at it. They’ve thought about it really well.”

Creative packaging can also benefit airlines by boosting ‘a la carte’ revenue. Stephen Parkerson, corporate airline chef for airline catering company Flying Food Group, has seen a greater focus on meal packaging among his company’s international long-haul clients.

“This segment of the industry is definitely looking to utilise attractive and trendy packaging as a means to drive sales,” he says. “We are always looking at new concepts from across the globe to generate new ideas on packaging, in order to keep our clients out in front of the trends.”

In order to stay one step ahead, many airlines are also going to the source – their customers – to determine their future dining strategies.

“We talk to our guests and we find out what they’re interested in,” says Calvert of Virgin America’s strategy. “We just added a lot of gluten-free products to our menu, that was something that we got some feedback on.”

Virgin America has also introduced more fresh, nutritious options to appeal to its health-conscious clientele, including a line of lower calorie offerings called Travel Light. The carrier will also roll out a line of what Calvert describes as healthy tapas – likely six small dishes made with fresh ingredients, served in cava cups –  in the fourth quarter of this year called Flight Bites.

Corsten has also witnessed a similar dining trend across the airline industry and among LSG Sky Chefs’ customer base. “There is a trend towards more healthy, individualised options,” she says. “Other trends worth noting include a preference for fresh ingredients [and] vegetarian meals . . . North American passengers, in particular, are increasingly requesting meals that are nutritionally balanced and in line with a more healthy lifestyle.”

Airlines are also looking to give customers a taste of the familiar, through tie-ins with celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Charlie Trotter and popular dining chains like KFC and Starbucks.

It’s clear that airlines have learned that what people enjoy on the ground, they will likely enjoy at 30,000 feet. And that includes more of a say in what, and particularly when, they eat. “Airlines [are] moving away from the traditional meal times on board and moving towards a ‘restaurant’ type experience, where the customer can order anything from the menu at any time during the flight,” Parkerson explains. Such on-demand ordering can give passengers, frequently crowded and uncomfortable on flights, an extra element of control.

“We call it personalisation, providing people with what you love on the ground” says Calvert. “We are really about control . . . We believe people should order food when they want it, not necessarily when the cart is coming down the aisle.”

Airline passengers can also exert greater control over meal options thanks to an increase in highly tailorable pre-order options.

ORDER AHEAD

Loukas has witnessed a steep incline in the number of airlines offering advanced meal pre-order options for a price in recent months, and predicts that several more airlines will announce similar programmes by the end of the year.

The move doesn’t just benefit passengers, but airlines as well. “They’re reducing wastage onboard the aircraft, they’re also reducing their fuel costs because they’re carrying less meals, they’re carrying the right amount of meals for passengers on board,” says Loukas. “But, at the same time, they’re still offering a really good, premium product for passengers.”

When determining current and future dining strategies, airlines must not only perform their own cost-benefit analysis, but also factor in what their competitors offer in specific markets.

STAYING COMPETITIVE

Loukas notes that SAS provides a free breakfast before 9am on all Scandinavian flights to differentiate its service from direct competitor Norwegian Air. Virgin Australia has also transitioned from its long-standing a la carte business model to more complimentary dining because of direct competition from Qantas.

“Food is important, and when you see an airline reversing a decision they made ten years ago when they first started, it just cements the fact that it does play a really big part,” adds Loukas.

And as airlines look to stay competitive, dining can also provide a golden opportunity for carriers to further delineate their brand identity in the eyes of consumers.  “Airlines are seeking to create a ‘whole passenger’ experience: the inflight meal plays a large role,” says Flying Food Group executive VP of airline sales, Nicolas Rondeau. “Airlines want to meet and exceed customer expectations,” he adds. They “know that consistent, top service will differentiate them and play a key role in return business and customer loyalty.”

LSG Sky Chefs also makes defining airline brand identity through dining a priority amongst its customer base. The company conducts innovation workshops to help turn their customers’ “culinary visions” into concrete concepts that differentiate their brand. “There is absolutely a chance for airlines to further define their brands through their food offerings,” Corsten says.

One strategy, she suggests, is for airlines to offer local specialties on regional flights, such as offering tapas on flights to Spain. “In the past, international airlines would tailor their meal offerings to the American/Western palate,” Parkerson explains. “The ever-growing presence of global cuisines in the American mainstream [has] afforded airlines the ability to serve their native cuisine . . . [We] see a trend for airlines moving back to more authentic cuisine.”

Frequent flyer Loukas claims the airlines that stand out the most for him are the ones that provide such authentic regional cuisines on board, including Turkish Airlines and Japanese airline All Nippon Airways. It’s a potent, multi-sensory experience passengers can positively associate with a given airline brand.

“You’ve got airlines that are doing [regional dining] really, really well, and you’ve got other airlines that could just be capitalizing on that local taste and touch, feel, all the senses that you get when you have a meal train front of you,” he says. And it’s that experience, he notes, passengers will remember. “People say the food’s not important, but it’s the number one thing people talk about when they get off the flight. ‘How was the food? What did you eat?’”

The founder of InflightFeed concedes that he, like most fellow travellers, doesn’t choose a flight based solely on food. But if given the choice between a comparably priced flight on a low cost carrier offering very little to no food, and Turkish Airlines, whose food he calls “amazing,” he’ll choose Turkish because he knows he will have a better inflight experience.

And it’s that mentality Turkish Airlines counts on as they continue to hand out those free snack boxes.

“Offering complimentary meals and snack boxes may sound insignificant to some, but it really does make a world of difference to our passengers,” says Genc. “Turkish Airlines believes that this strategy is cost effective, considering that such a customer oriented and exceptional application creates a high customer satisfaction [level], which cannot be obtained at any cost.”

“In the passenger’s eyes, its services and amenities like this that turn them into loyal customers for years to come,” he concludes.

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About Debbie Siegelbaum

Debbie Siegelbaum is a freelance journalist based in Chicago, Ill. She has worked as a political correspondent covering Congress for The Hill, and has reported on the Pentagon and United States Army for Inside Defense. Siegelbaum has also covered East African politics and conflict for Agence France-Presse, and has written world news, science and technology stories for Time in London. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

View all posts by Debbie Siegelbaum
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