Stephen Jardine: Airline offerings given the bird

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage
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FIRST, the good news. From the start of next month, British Airways will be serving chocolate truffles and pralines made by award-winning Scottish chocolatier Iain Burnett.

For a small producer based in rural Perthshire this is quite achievement, reflecting the quality of the chocolate and the skill of its sales and marketing effort. Sadly, most of us won’t get a chance to try them as the products are only going into first class.

For the rest of us sadly, it’s chicken or fish. There was a time when airline catering seemed part of the exotic experience of flying. You wouldn’t have dreamt of eating at the airport as that might have dented your appetite for the delights being served mid-air.

Now airport food outlets are booming and inflight meals are about as exciting a prospect as severe turbulence.

Just yesterday, award-winning food writer Alex Renton tweeted: “Comically appalling food on British Airways flight. Passengers retch, stewards take it back. Would have settled for a banana”.

We all have to eat, so especially on long-haul flights, food should be something to look forward to.

Instead, all airlines seem to view feeding passengers as something that has to be done as quickly and, of course, cheaply as possible.

Nowadays we are all used to plenty of choice so chicken or fish is unlikely to make for happy eaters, especially since the chicken has usually run out by the time it reaches row 12.

So we’re left with the fish and you don’t need to be Rick Stein or Roy Brett to know that fish cooked and then kept warm for hours and hours is unlikely to taste delicious.

But at least they are trying. The low-cost airlines have more or less given up on trying to feed their passengers.

Against this backdrop, the airports have responded by increasing the quality and variety of their eating offerings and the availability of food to grab and go. Chefs are also realising airports represent a captive audience they have never really targeted before.

Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food is now being rolled out from Heathrow Terminal 5 to other locations, and just this week Heston Blumenthal unveiled plans for a restaurant at Heathrow Terminal 2. Both offer food to take on board as well as sit-down menus

The key for chefs is to understand the way airports operate. Customers have limited time and may also want lighter meals than they would choose at another location. Add in the security logistics of produce delivery and staffing and it’s a challenging environment but one with huge potential.

The airlines only have themselves to blame. For years they have taken feeding passengers for granted and the result is their customers are now looking elsewhere. The days of chicken or fish are definitely numbered.