Wednesday 16 October 2019

Airline looks outside sector for recipe of business success

Irish chef Donal Skehan in a Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse lounge
Irish chef Donal Skehan in a Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse lounge

Mark Evans

Airline food is one of those things that travellers - rightly or wrongly - love to moan about. But it's one of the areas where airlines have been using science as well as taste-testing to develop better menus in the skies.

Research has revealed that you're not alone in thinking that food tastes different on a flight.

The problems are lack of humidity, lower air pressure, and even the background noise on a flight. The fact that many cabins are drier than deserts plays havoc with our taste buds, and at 30,000 feet the lack of humidity dries out food faster.

Combined with lower air pressure it means that the sensitivity of our taste buds to sweet and salty foods reduces by around 30pc.

Interestingly, researchers have found that up to 80pc of what we think is taste is actually smell - and again in cabins our odour receptors don't work so well, making food that's fine on the ground appear bland.

Scientists have also discovered in recent years following research that even noise - from engines or fellow passengers - affects how we taste our food.

On the flip side, some sour, bitter and spicy flavours are completely unaffected, or are enhanced, up high, so lashing on the spices isn't always the answer.

Virgin Atlantic is thinking outside the box with its approach to inflight dining, with Irish celebrity chef Donal Skehan getting on-board as a food partner.

Daniel Kerzner, the airline's vice-president of customer experience, told the Sunday Independent that it's the latest stage of a drive to be different.

"What we are trying to do is give our customers something that historically they wouldn't get from an airline - an airline that doesn't fly with airline food."

He said that while developing the right foods for high altitude is a "problem that plagues the industry", Kerzner - a veteran of the hospitality sector having worked as VP of marketing for hotel giants Marriott and Starwood - adds that Virgin wanted to look outside the industry for inspiration.

He says with Skehan, it "was a case of how do we get someone to work with who is fresh in that space and hasn't necessarily done it before, with what we call a 'what if' or 'why not' attitude.

"Donal met a couple of those criteria. He hadn't worked for an airline before, he comes from a food background in his family and he travels a lot in his work and he has such a fresh approach in terms of his own career that connects with today's audience. His whole business is using food to connect with people."

Sceptics might argue that having a household face doesn't mean that the celebrity has much of a hand or part in what they've put their name to.

Not so, says Kerzner. "Donal said 'I'm not interested in just putting my name on a dish. I'm interested in working with you to transform inflight dining so if you really want to work together as partners, then I want to work with you."

Kerzner, who said Skehan's TV exposure on both sides of the Atlantic was a big plus, recalls: "The approach he took - which I thought was pretty brilliant - was that the first thing was he said 'I want to get on a plane and I need to fly'."

During the 12-month process Skehan did just that, travelling between the UK and US. The first trip, to New York, involved "standing in a galley for six hours literally tasting all our food in the air... it wasn't enough to taste the food on the ground, he really wanted to understand what happened to your taste buds in the air first hand".

And this involved interaction with the cabin crew, who provided their own insights at an airline that serves 10 million meals a year.

The new menu is now live on the carrier's Upper Class cabins (a first class/business hybrid) on transatlantic flights outbound from the UK, and a separate ground-based menu features in Clubhouse lounges at airports. Other menus will be rolled out to other regions and into the premium and economy cabins.


Elsewhere in dining, Turkish Airlines, which has featured on-board chefs as a USP for years, now allows business-class passengers to choose their meals before the flight on intercontinental flights in and out of Istanbul. The service is available from a week out with a cut-off point of 48 hours before departure.

Another new service - which will prove popular for those in need of sleep - is any-time dining while on-board, again on intercontinental flights.

Sunday Indo Business

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