A Facebook friend of mine recently flew with a Middle Eastern carrier from London to Singapore and complained to me: “The food is awful, nigh on inedible. Are they renowned for it or has all airline food got worse recently? The rubbery cheddar in particular was a treat!”
I advised her to tweet about her experiences or, at the very least, give the airline her feedback. She replied: “It is impossible to find a contact email address/web submission form to make any kind of complaint/feedback. It does give a phone number but no-one in their right mind is going to call an 0800 number for this. So that is my passenger feedback, the food is ‘meh’ and there is no-one to speak to. Crossing arms and pursing lips!”
It would seem an obvious solution for this airline to offer a better quality meal in the form of a pre-ordered ‘a la carte’ menu option. Indeed, many carriers are now offering economy class passengers the option to pre-order or upgrade their inflight meals at the time of booking and up to 24 hours before the flight….for a price.
Whilst this passenger-pleasing option is good for customers, it’s ultimately “all about ancillaries”, says David Loft, president of the International Flight Services Association (IFSA). “The benefits of preordering are that passengers can order something of higher quality, they’re paying for it and getting something decent. To the airline, it saves wastage because they’re not loading a plane full of food that’s not going to get eaten. The airline is not taking the risk of putting 50 sandwiches on a flight and only 10 of them being sold.”
The cynics among us might suggest that airlines are gradually trying to phase out the complimentary meal (well, let’s be clear, meals included in the economy fare) and ease us into buy-on-board programmes on long-haul and overseas routes.
Loft doesn’t believe this is the case. “I’m not sure it’s a trend. But I would support anything that gives passengers the opportunity to have a decent meal on board. As IFSA president, I’d support going back to having a good quality free meal. But it’s purely economic issues that go against this.”
Loft notes that while some US and European airlines have opted to offer this new service, the Middle Eastern carriers “tend to want to offer the same product to everyone”.
Hawaiian Airlines, for instance, is now offering ‘Premium Island Meals’ in addition to its complimentary meals. Passengers can even order their meal in the departure lounge and in the aircraft cabin.
Designed by Chef Chai, these meals “reflect the diversity of cultures and flavours that characterise local cuisine; including Kalua Pork Sandwich, Island-Style Chicken, Prawns with Cold Noodles, and Chinese Chicken Salad, and Maui Style Potato Chips and Hawaiian Spring bottled water”, says the carrier. Passengers are also treated to a “complimentary glass of wine with their premium selection”.
US Airways, meanwhile, beckons passengers aboard its flights to Europe, the Middle East and South America to order one of its premium chilled ‘DineFresh’ meals paired with wine for $19.99, at least 24 hours before their flight.
The Points Guy, a blogger who writes about “maximising your travel points”, notes that American Airlines is still offering a complimentary meal in economy class but passengers can also pre-order before the flight. “So no danger of them running out of the option I want. To ensure your preference is available, the airline requests that passengers place their orders at least 24 hours prior to departure.”
On the other side of the pond, Austrian Airlines allows passengers to book a meal 36 hours before departure. “In Vienna spontaneous passengers also have the possibility to directly order their desired menu directly at [suppliers] DO & CO at the à la carte desk in the Austrian Star Alliance terminal up to only one hour before their flight departs. Having the ticket booking code of the respective traveler at hand, the à la carte menu can also be ordered as a surprise present,” says the carrier.
Passengers of airberlin can pre-order “gourmet” meals online, in the airberlin service centre or buy them on board from Sansibar, (a popular restaurant on the German island of Sylt).
An airberlin spokesperson notes that passengers travelling in economy class can still purchase a hot meal without ordering it in advance. “The airline sells around 600,000 gourmet meals per year. The majority of the gourmet meals sold in 2011 were purchased spontaneously on board the aircraft. Around 17% of the meals were ordered in advance.”
KLM offers economy passengers the option to pre-order food with its ‘a la carte’ menu and offers complimentary coffee, tea or a liqueur. It offers destination-specific menus on flights to and from Asia including Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean fare. On flights to China, passengers can choose from a “delicious Chinese menu, alongside Western food”, says the airline.
The next time you’re in coach, unwrapping the foil of your “complimentary” meal to find a disappointing dish, glance over at your seat buddy. Perhaps he or she has upgraded to a premium, locally sourced meal option designed by a famous chef. Depending on your airline, it might not be too late to upgrade.