Let’s go a little random this week. What’s the best food you’ve had on an airplane? What airline was it?
Browsing Posts in Meals
Getting back to speed with a new baby in the house isn’t easy, so I’m posting one more guest post today to help me catch up. (Besides, I need time to read through all the American Airlines changes as well as the FAA reauthorization bill for posts next week.) This one is from a familiar face . . .
My frenemie Brett “Cranky Flier” Snyder begged me (ok, he just asked) to write a guest post for his tiny, insignificant blog. Normally, I would have just ignored Brett’s email (which I do 98.7% of the time). But he and his lovely wife delivered my baby avgeek niece or nephew, so I relented.
I had one of the best jobs in the world – airports and security editor for Aviation Week magazine. That, along with being a judge the past four years for Airports Council International-North America’s annual concessions contest and my extensive world travels going back to when I was 5, has given me a fine appreciation of what I like to see in airports when it comes to concessions.
I’m old enough to remember the days when airport concessions consisted of “Newstand,” “Restaurant,” “Snack Bar” and “Gifts.” but oh, how times have changed!! This change has come for two reasons.
One, as airlines have merged and cut routes and frequencies, they are paying airports less in landing fees and rent. Two, because of post-9/11 security changes, travelers are spending more time in airports, and they’re demanding more sophisticated food/beverage and retail options. So below are my five picks for airports doing great things with their concessions programs.
- Portland International Airport – This is a rare airport, in that they don’t contract with a big concession operator like HMS Host or Delaware North to handle their concessions. They use their own in-house team to come up with what I think is a near-perfect mix of local/regional and national brands. On the food side, they including the Laurelwood Brewing Co., Pizza Schmizza, Starbucks, and Panda Express. On the concessions side, there’s the iconic Powell’s Books, Columbia Sportswear, and The Oregonian news stand.
- San Francisco International Airport – I’ve had the chance to see my original hometown airport evolve over the years, and I love the changes. Among its treasures, this airport has a full-service medical clinic and a world-class art museum. As I write this, I haven’t been to the new Terminal 2, so nothing in there is in this post. But great food options abound: Andale Mexican Restaurant, Boudin’s Bakery and Café, Tomokazu and Peet’s Coffee. Retail options are U Threads (sells clothing and items from Bay Area universities), Aviator Books, Coach, and Ghiradelli.
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – This has always been one of my favorite airports because of features like free Wi-Fi, two pet parks, and one of the first cell phone lots in the country. Terminal 4 (home to Southwest Airlines and US Airways) has some great food choices: Blue Burrito Grille (restaurant and carry-out), Paradise Bakery and Café, Einstein Bagels and Quiznos. On the retail side, check out A to Z Kids, In Celebration of Golf, and See’s Candies.
- Chicago Midway Airport – I have actually scheduled some of my Southwest Airlines trips to go through Midway because I love the shopping options there. The main concessions area has an actual sense of place. Food choices include Harry Caray’s, Nuts on Clark (I’d kill for this popcorn), Ben & Jerry’s, and McDonalds. Available retail choices are House of Blues, Discover Chicago, and Kids Works.
- Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport – I did an insider’s tour of this facility a few years ago and had a grand time. This is a very passenger-focused airport, with concessions including free Samsung lounges (with seats, outlets and Wi-Fi) and the giant Shop 24 vending machine that sells everything from diapers to Caesar salads. I’m also a big fan of the La Bodega Winery, Cereality Breakfast Bar, Dunkin Donuts, and Au Bon Pain. Retail options include my beloved Bijoux Terner (everything is $10!), Natalie’s Candy Jar, Official Dallas Cowboys Pro Shop, and Bose.
The topic has been raised here recently a couple of times. After decades of including prayer cards with meal trays, Alaska has decided to discontinue the practice. It had been reduced in scope when free meals disappeared from the coach cabin, but it was still in First Class meals. Do you agree that they should be gone? Read the full text of the decision here.
I had a great opportunity earlier this week to head on over to LAX to do a menu tasting with Alaska Airlines. They loaded me up with tasty food, but to me it was the process that made this so interesting. Airlines need to think about a lot of things when it comes to putting food on your flight, even in its now-reduced state.
I showed up at what looked like a fortress just before noon. Behind big gates with strict security, I entered the new LAX kitchen for LSG Sky Chefs. LSG handles the provisioning for Alaska in every one of its stations except for Newark and in the Hawaiian Islands. (There is no LSG kitchen at Newark.)
I was taken up into a big room where we would do our tasting. There were three faces I recognized – Bobbie Egan, Media Relations Manager was there as were Kirsten Robinett, Product Manager of Onboard Food & Beverage and Lisa Luchau, Director of Onboard Food & Beverage. Beyond them, there were several other people in the room working feverishly. Was this all done for me? Thankfully, no.
Alaska does this regularly to make sure everything is up to snuff. There are monthly menu tastings in Seattle, quarterly kitchen audits in the hubs, and annual audits in the other kitchens around the system. How Kirsten and Lisa don’t weigh 700 pounds is beyond me, because it seems that their job is to constantly eat, even if it is in very small portions.
The kitchen audits aren’t just about tasting food, however. They go to the airport and observe the operation. Is the food being delivered to the aircraft properly? Are the carts organized correctly? Are all the temperatures right? Is the recycling collected on board actually being recycled? It’s a very thorough process. As part of this, they do a menu tasting, and that’s where I got to participate.
Along the wall, every dish prepared by the LA kitchen was set up as it should be presented on the airplane. Each year, Alaska puts together a meal plan that will start in April and go for a year. Meals are rotated monthly but will likely pop up four times during the year thanks to regular rotation. I say “likely” because some get pulled out if the feedback is too negative. One was the portobello mushroom sandwich. Apparently, the team loved it and so did many passengers, but it didn’t go over well with everyone. It was on thin ice.
The executives have a weekly team lunch. It’s a regular meeting but it’s catered with food served on the airplane. (Most of the time, it’s with buy on board options from coach, but sometimes it’s the First Class food.) Once, they served the portobello mushroom and the word came down quickly – it had to be ditched.
Some foods, however, make it beyond the one year mark. The Angus cheeseburger, for example, has survived year in and year out as one of the most popular choices. Still, they’re careful to rotate it out so as not to have it wear out its welcome. It just keeps coming back.
While standing at the long table, I realized just what kind of attention to detail you need to have in this job. Kirsten was quick to notice that the butter was served in a little plastic case. That shouldn’t be that way in First Class, she noted. As we moved down the table, they pulled out a cheeseburger to show me just how much effort goes into these things. The cheese is folded in half because it melts better that way. It’s also placed upside down in the bun so it’s pulled out more easily by the traveler. It’s the little things . . . .
We looked at the four snack boxes that are shelf-stable. There’s a new kids box that they’ve been trying out – it’s been getting rave reviews. There’s also a vegan snack box, a deli box, and a vegetarian one. These look just like any other snack box but the products inside are different. There’s a heavy emphasis on using items from the Pacific Northwest. The discussion kept coming back to Beecher’s Cheese as an example – it’s a cheese that until recently was only made in Seattle.
We ended up sitting at a table and the tastings began. All food is served from a galley cart and on to Alaska’s usual plates. The silverware is the same too, because they need to make sure that airplane knives can cut adequately through the items. Everything has to be as close as possible to the actual situation on the plane.
We started off small, eating bits and pieces. But that was before I got to this great pork dish with meat falling off the bone. I, um, ate a lot of that one.
I ate a lot of everything after that, in fact, but I was most interested in seeing how the team reacted during the tasting. Kirsten was a little upset about a croissant being used by the LA kitchen. It was apparently bigger than what they use in most places so there wasn’t enough chicken to fill it.
Everything is measured out carefully and there’s even a scale at the table if she thinks something is off. She also focused on the bread for the Italian baguette. It wasn’t quite what she wanted it to be.
The process of trying to get food to be somewhat standardized throughout an airline’s route network is daunting, because you can’t source everything the same in every city. But every cart on the airplane has a card that shows in color what each dish should look like when given to the traveler. That helps the flight attendants with standardization, but you can never guarantee perfection.
It sounds like nothing is quite as difficult as the Hawaiian Islands. In Lihue, most airlines just cater on the mainland for the roundtrip, so there weren’t any real catering options. Alaska found a local restaurant, bought a trailer, and has that company do the catering for the flights from Lihue.
In the end, I walked away with a real appreciation for how much effort goes into the food experience from the airline perspective. Now that Alaska has been able to successfully create a buy on board program with fresh food, it has the ability to invest even more into the program.
It’s time once again for us to talk about airline food. I know, it’s your favorite, right? But this is really interesting stuff. As part of Form 41 data that airlines have to submit to the feds, food expense is broken out. Someone brought this to my attention recently, and I played around with the numbers to get a really interesting chart. Here it is, showing food spend per passenger by airline. (Click to blow it up.)
There are just so many interesting things to see in this chart. Here are my random thoughts.
- Look at how much money Alaska spent on food in the early 1990s. That’s crazy for an airline that’s mostly short to medium haul flying. Obviously, they changed that significantly in 1993 and now they’re in the bottom half of the pack.
- United and American have been going in lockstep, as you might expect. They hit their peak on food spend in 2001 and then, completely unsurprisingly, tanked from there.
- You can really chart Continental’s success here. The airline dramatically slashed food in the early 1990s in its bid to survive. When Gordon Bethune took over and started investing in the product, food spend started to rise and it’s stayed there. Obviously, this number will start to plunge now that Continental has trashed free food in coach. Interesting that the spend is still less on Continental than United. I wonder if First Class has something to do with that?
- Look at Northwest’s climb at the end of its life. That’s the Delta influence there, but both airlines have stepped up their spending. Much of that is likely related to the airline’s strong, fresh food buy-on-board program.
- US Airways has always been near the bottom, but much of that may be because it has a much higher percentage of domestic flights than the other legacies. You can see the fight for survival after 9/11. Food spend dropped, but you can also see that food at America West started to rise a little after the merger. Now they’ve found equilibrium at a very low level.
- The most steady spender on food? Southwest, of course. Those peanuts are cheap.
Fun chart, huh? Too bad we can’t map this to revenue from food sales, but that info isn’t given to the feds.