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How in-flight meals got a makeover

In-flight food has evolved to offer a restaurant-like experience, with salads, multi-course meals and vegan options

Dishes from the Makar Sankranti menu by Akasa Air
Dishes from the Makar Sankranti menu by Akasa Air

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"We are back in full swing,” says Manish Gupta. The chief executive officer of the in-flight catering company TajSATs was sitting in a sparkling new food studio in Mumbai, next to the kitchen that caters to hundreds of flights daily. The studio, he says, is important for food tastings. It’s even more essential now as their clients, on both international and domestic airlines, have started asking for better, and a greater variety of, food options. As travel soars and tastes evolve, in-flight food has gone well beyond insipid ready-to-eat meals and soggy rolls.

Proof lies in the Valentine’s Day menus, Diwali specials and Christmas roasts served on flights like those of Akasa Air, catered by TajSATS. Even Indigo has upped its food game with well-packaged rolls. A popular late-night flight is Vistara’s, for its (almost) appetising dinners. A handful of flights now cater to dietary preferences, such as gluten-free, diabetic-friendly and low-calorie. The idea is to have a café-like experience up in the air.

Vistara’s buy-on-board menu, named Café Aubergine, features items such as popcorn, ready-to-eat rajma chawal and packaged nuts. Indigo’s 6E Tiffin has steamed baos, mini kulchas and galouti sliders. Akasa Air’s buy-on-board menu, Café Akasa, has been planned to stand out from its competitors.

“When we launched (in September), we felt one of the most important differentiating factors—to add value and be relevant to our potential consumers—is the on-board meal service,” explains Belson Coutinho, co-founder and chief marketing and experience officer of Akasa Air. They studied consumer behaviour and dining trends on ground and attempted to recreate them with in-flight meals with seasonally changing menus, festive dishes and celebratory treats, like birthday cakes.

This year, Akasa Air’s Valentine’s offering featured a special meal with heart-shaped red sauce ravioli, grilled vegetables, red velvet cake and a choice of hot or cold beverage. The limited menu will end on 28 February. Coutinho says: “It is not just about offering a sandwich. We want to improvise and innovate with new menus so that we can give a fun experience that our passengers can look forward to.”

Yet, even today, food served on board is not a patch on what used to be served. It’s miles behind, in flavour and feel, even when compared to Kingfisher’s complimentary menus of 2005. Going back further, to the 1950s-80s, air travel was pure luxury. There are vintage photographs of Air India staff carving lamb and duck and serving passengers.

During the 1990s, Indian Airlines, Jet Airways and Damania Airways (for a brief period) would distribute free candies that children would grab by the handful, and trays full of warm meals with sachets of sugar, salt and pepper that mothers would slip into their handbags.

The arrival of low-cost carriers (LCCs) like Indigo, SpiceJet and Go Air, which started in the aughts, led to bare, packaged meals you had to pay for. They aimed to be safe, punctual and affordable, notes Gupta. They didn’t allot budgets for food. This led to a complete change in flight menus.

Over the last few years, however, in-flight meals have returned to the spotlight. Gupta says it began with Vistara, which is co-owned by the Tatas and Singapore Airlines, in 2015. The aviation business took a hit during the pandemic but, he adds, “Now, the focus has come back to food to such an extent that the airlines are pushing us.”

An element of surprise, like finding a kaju katli on the food tray on a flight during Diwali, will make an impression. “We want to give you something that would make you go, ‘Oh my god this is brilliant!’,” says Gupta. This would extend to serving gujiyas during Holi, for instance.

Akasa Air is keen to introduce regional specialities too. “We have been thinking, as we start flying to newer cities within India, we will establish a connect with them with famous food items that they are known for, be it drinks or a dish,” says Coutinho.

In-flight food by TajSATS. (Photo; Sanjay Borade)
In-flight food by TajSATS. (Photo; Sanjay Borade)

Most of the goodness, though, needs to be pre-booked and comes at a premium price. Be ready to shell out 400-600 for a meal on low-cost carrier flights like Indigo and Akasa. In a full-service airline, like Vistara and Air India, the food is complimentary but the meal on offer differs from business class to premium economy to economy.

Gupta repeatedly points out that food safety is paramount. He says they have a rigorous process with X-ray machines and metal detectors, with staff manually checking food and then running it through X-ray machines and metal detectors. Despite these stringent checks, an Air India flyer recently complained of finding a stone in an in-flight meal. I bring this up and Gupta says: “Look, food is complicated. In a lot of cases, the colour (of the stone) is the same (as the food item). It’s impossible to make out. Sometimes the piece might be so minute that nothing can detect it. There is no excuse for metal to be found in food because that’s a health hazard.”

Safety is the reason water is not served in glass tumblers on flights. It’s handed out either in a paper cup or plastic bottles that most airlines are now trying to do away with. Metal crockery and cutlery too had been done away with in some carriers and classes, for, in addition to posing safety issues, these add to the grammage or weight—the heavier the flight, the more fuel it consumes.

“To do away with plastic packaging, crockery and cutlery is the most challenging thing right now,” Gupta points out, adding that they are gradually introducing biodegradable cutlery while tackling other factors that are not directly linked to what a customer finds on the food tray. For instance, 70-80% of their Chennai unit (they have eight in all) runs on solar and wind energy, he says. Right now, they are experimenting with using electric vehicles as food trucks between the kitchens and airports.

Menus are in for a makeover too. Gupta predicts plant-based menus, vegan options, gluten-free meals and more. “We want to surprise you.”

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