The airline industry is in trouble. Is bottomless caviar the answer?


Last week, I sat at a bar in an airport in Paris and ate seven aeroplane meals in a row. The dishes arrived wrapped in tin foil, but this was not plane food as I have previously experienced it: there was caviar and yuzu sponge and a tiny French crêpe stuffed with whipped cream. The only real clue this was food designed to be eaten in the air was that it remained eerily still. At one point, a chef handed me a tomato and mozzarella salad and invited me to “shake the plate”. I shook, gently at first and then violently, but nothing moved. The chef looked delighted. Every meal was turbulence-proof.

I had travelled to Paris to try Air France’s new first class menu. As the airline industry lurches forward after successive Covid-19 lockdowns, food has become a kind of weapon. A month ago, Emirates launched a “bottomless caviar” service for premium passengers, part of a refurb which cost $2bn. Other carriers are struggling to keep up; working on this article I detected more than a whiff of desperation. Three separate airlines offered to fly me just to taste their new first class menus and one sent me a box of its new chinaware. The International Air Transport Association estimates that, from 2020 to 2022, airlines will have suffered cumulative losses of just over $200bn.

As these airlines fight harder to turn a profit, first class meals are getting more elaborate and more performative. Business and first class account for about one-third of all airline seats but generate up to 70 per cent of revenue. The promise of a better meal is part of what motivates passengers to buy a premium ticket. (One executive at a major airline catering company told me that the only real reason to serve food in first class is to “make economy passengers feel bad about themselves”). Now more than ever, airlines have a financial incentive to make you aware of your place in the hierarchy.

© Kenneth Lam

From a purely scientific perspective, the ­creation of a decent aeroplane meal is an elusive goal. At 35,000ft, the human tongue goes partially numb, causing you to lose about one-third of your taste buds. The microclimate of an aeroplane is drier than most deserts, which has an effect on the nose roughly equivalent to stuffing one nostril with toilet paper.

Even the sound of the engine changes the way food tastes. Exposure to the background noise of an aeroplane, which can reach 80-85dB, dulls your sensitivity to salty and sugary flavours, while enhancing your perception of the proteinous fifth taste, umami. This explains the enduring love affair between air passengers and tomato juice, which is ordered as much as beer in flight. If you drink it in the sky, it will taste richer, more savoury, and less acidic.

This research confirming these challenges to in-flight degustation was only published in 2010. In the years since, airlines have come up with a number of deliberately eye-catching “scientific” counters. In 2014, Singapore Airlines built a kitchen in a simulated pressurised cabin, so that it could test each dish at the proper atmospheric levels.

Other solutions have been more peculiar. In 2017, Finnair brought out a menu of “sonic seasonings”, inviting passengers to enhance the richness of, say, their meatballs by eating along to a pre-­recorded track of a crackling fire played through headphones. There is not much in the way of hard evidence to prove that either Finnair’s seasonings or Singapore Airlines’ cabin has made their food significantly better, but the battle to woo luxury passengers has never really been about hard evidence. It’s about pageantry. The promotional video for Finnair’s menu includes a scene in which celebrity chef Stephen Liu crouches in a Finnish meadow with a microphone, trying to record the babbling of a brook.

On the flight over to Paris I was served a few curled sandwiches and a croissant but, once I arrived, Air France had arranged to feed me in the business class lounge, which was like stepping through a looking-glass into an alternate airport. Outside in departures I had seen an angry scrum around one of the airline desks and a woman crying openly, slumped on her suitcase. Inside the lounge everything was fabulously calm: there was unlimited free champagne and a Clarins spa where you could have your face massaged. Sitting on a small French bar stool, designed for small French ­bottoms, eating my aeroplane meals, I had a ­feeling I have had before in fancy restaurants. Was this food good, or did it just taste good because people were being so nice to me?

At one point I was given a bowl of polenta designed by Michelin-starred chef Anne-Sophie Pic, which tasted cosily of Ready Brek. I liked it. But the thrill I felt gobbling it up had less to do with the dish itself than the sensation that I was Air France’s large and hungry baby. Any time I lifted my face from my plate someone smiled at me and when I slopped a bit of polenta down my chin I was given a creamy linen napkin to wipe myself with.

Two plates of appetizers, each held up by the server
© Kenneth Lam

After I had finished eating, a press officer talked to me about the psyche of the luxury traveller, which, it turns out, is delicate and easily disturbed. He showed me a photograph of the business class seat on an Air France plane, which is shaped like a miniature booth. “The business class ­passenger wants to be in a cocoon. He wants to think: ‘I am the boss.’” Here, the press officer scrunched up his face to impersonate a businessman. “I am the boss!”

Passengers in first class (which Air France calls La Première) are more impressionable. The press officer showed me another photograph, of a beautiful woman on an enormous squishy chair. He explained that this customer required a different approach altogether, for she was softer. Part of the job, he said, is to “anticipate this passenger’s desires”. Air France will keep a meticulous list of this customer’s idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, so as to surprise her with little treats.

I asked whether the intention was to make this customer “feel loved”, and the press officer said “yes”, without missing a beat. He began to demonstrate. “Happy Birthday!”, he said, smiling not at me, but at the woman in the photo. “I know you like chocolate! Would you like a chocolate cake?”

Watching him do this, it occurred to me that the fact this woman’s tongue will be partially numb when she eats her cake is not terribly significant. Food is not simply food on an aeroplane, it is a kind of prop — part of an elaborate game staff play with their passengers, flight after flight. The point of all this is to give the customer something money isn’t supposed to be able to buy you. The conviction that you are not only rich or special, but that you are intimately known.

A few days after I got back from Paris I drove to Heston, just outside Heathrow airport, to visit Singapore Airlines’ UK kitchens. The airline spent more than £300mn on food in 2022 and has a reputation for luxury. It serves lobster thermidor, which you can eat — if you pay about £11,500 for a first class ticket — snuggled up in a double bed.

I had wanted to have a Zoom tour of the airline’s test kitchen, built inside its sensory deprivation chamber in Singapore, but I was told it was closed for refurbishment. Instead, I am shown into a conference room, where a group of chefs are eating a curry and marking it with little scorecards. I ask how the airline is adjusting dishes for the sky while its pressurised kitchen is closed, but the chefs are a bit hazy on this point. Modern aircraft are less dry, an executive from Singapore Airlines says vaguely, so “we don’t use that kitchen very much any more”. When I ask whether this means passengers no longer lose 30 per cent of their taste buds in the sky, he is evasive: “I wouldn’t believe those numbers. I couldn’t tell you.”

At the back of the conference room, there were more than 30 different real first class aeroplane meals balanced on plinths like tiny edible statues. I am walked around the display by Singapore Airlines’ global food and beverage director Antony McNeil, who stops me in front of a plate of blinis to tell me about his caviar budget.

“In the last two months I have utilised 12,000 cans of caviar,” he says, handing me an ornamental tin to inspect. He talks to me about the unique thrill of eating caviar on a Singapore Airlines flight, which seems to revolve mainly around being semi-conscious. The first class passenger can choose when and how often she eats, he explains. “So if you want to get on board, sleep for an hour and then wake up and have your caviar, you can do that”, he says brightly. “Then you can sleep again, wake up for some Taittinger, and then go back to sleep for hours.”

A glass of water on a sleek airline tray-table
© Kenneth Lam

Later I am served a selection of different aeroplane meals, including a lamb chop designed by Gordon Ramsay. The chop is one of Singapore Airlines’ “exclusive” dishes: chefs have to sign a non-disclosure agreement before they cook it. It’s nice, but it tastes almost identical to the beef dish I eat immediately afterwards, which is by someone else entirely.

Eating my secret lamb, I wonder whether the NDAs are a kind of performance. In the absence of being able to serve restaurant-quality food in the sky, airlines give us theatre. The celebrity chefs and the score cards and the caviar — even the simulated pressurised test kitchen — are a kind of stage set. McNeil told me he spent months during the pandemic tweaking all of Singapore Airlines’ “classic” dishes to make tiny but “crucial” adjustments to the flavour profiles. The story airlines tell is really a story of reinvention. Singapore Airlines launches 9,750 new dishes per year: how many of those dishes are really new? And how many are being cleverly rebranded? The fantasy that you are eating something exceptional is far more important than any reality.

Back in Paris, right at the end of my trip, I was ushered through a hidden door into yet another airport lounge. This was for Air France’s La Première flyers only, my escort explained, and there were to be no photographs, for this was an “intimate” space where favoured passengers could retreat from the eyes of the world. I was shown into a private room where the walls were made out of velveteen cushions and spangled with miniature lights. Three puddings arrived at my table and I drank a martini, lolling back in my chair.

Afterwards I looked around the toilets, which were cavernous and egg-shaped, and explored the lounge’s “relaxation room”, which was dotted with bed-sized pouffes. A hostess came over and told me I didn’t have to think about when my flight was: she knew and would come and find me when it was time. The point of being in this lounge was not to think. I lay down on a pouffe and had a snooze.

An indeterminate amount of time later, I was woken in a gentle, soothing way. A different hostess led me back through the hidden door and out into departures, which looked, from my new vantage point, a lot like hell. The ordinary business of finding my gate and queueing and walking unaided felt, in that moment, unimaginable. Which, I ­suppose, is the point.

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