Ninety-two years ago, British Airways antecedent, Imperial Airways introduced a service that made its Silver Wing flights famous and today remains integral to the in-flight experience.
In 1927, it removed two seats from the Argosy aircraft that flew between London and Paris to allow enough space for a steward to serve food. It was a bold move, sacrificing potential revenue to gain a competitive edge, but it worked. Although the fare was simple: sandwiches or biscuits, beef tea and a choice of beer, whisky or mineral water – passengers considered the idea of being served an in-flight meal the height of luxury.
Many years later, the competitive advantage that onboard dining could provide was not lost on the late Lord Marshall, former British Airways CEO and later chairman.
About the time of its privatisation, he found that the airline was struggling on some of its early morning domestic routes. This soon changed when he introduced a better breakfast than the competitors and won back customers.
Things have come a long way since the sandwiches and biscuits of the Silver Wing service, not least of which are that today’s airline caterers not only have to deal with heightened customer expectations but also the height at which modern aircraft fly.
Back then altitude was not a problem as aircraft flew relatively low and were not pressurised. Modern long-haul jet aircraft, such as the Boeing 777s British Airways operates to Kenya, cruise at around 38 000 feet and are pressurised to 8 000 feet. The combination of dry air and low air pressure means most people lose about 30% of their ability to taste, so food can seem a bit bland or insipid. It’s why airline catering is an art and why food is often more robustly flavoured than it would be in a restaurant on the ground.
Some years ago, British Airways coined the phrase Height Cuisine, to describe how its onboard meals were specially prepared to taste good in the air. It discovered that sour, spicy and bitter flavours don’t seem to be as affected at altitude. Nor is the fifth taste – umami – the savoury flavour in things such as tomatoes, soy sauce and mushrooms. Consequently, these umami flavours feature in many of the dishes served on board.
Now the airline is upping the game again. With the food and beverage offering being a huge driver of customer satisfaction, catering is part of its £6,5 billion five-year investment plan.
“Our approach is to invest and innovate where customers value it most, so catering – onboard and in our lounges – is integral to the plan,” says Sue Petrie, commercial manager, trade for Southern and East Africa.
To deliver the new onboard catering, the airline has extended its partnership with Do&Co, the premier provider of fine dining in the skies, for all flights departing Heathrow. In Kenya, it has appointed NAS Servair.
In its Club World business class cabin, part of the £600 million investment includes a new dining experience. Other components are new bedding and amenity kits by luxury British retailer, The White Company.
Alison Underwood, the airline’s head of catering says that when planning the new Club World menu her team really focussed on attention to detail.
Everything was considered, from flavours to textures, look and feel, all of which, of course, had to work at altitude.
“The dishes are designed to pop with taste and the table settings are elegant and practical, with thought-through details such as stemless wine glasses.”
The focus on detail extends to offerings such as the Club Kitchen, where customers can help themselves to an array of indulgent treats as well as fresh fruit and healthy snacks. The Club Kitchen has proved to be one of British Airways’ most popular innovations. The offering of traditional favourites, including the Cadbury’s box, has now been extended to offer a larger array of British brands and updated healthy options.
The improvements don’t end there. New champagnes were introduced in both the First and Club cabins last year. In Club World Graham’s Six Grape, the port Sir Winston Churchill favoured has also been added to the drinks menu.
For premium customers wanting a wake-up jolt of caffeine, the airline partnered with speciality roaster Union Hand-Roasted Coffee to provide great tasting coffee in the air as well as in all its UK lounges.
The catering improvements aren’t limited to business class. In the main cabin, World Traveller, it has introduced more quality and quantity to the menu, delivering tasty meals and snacking options. Previously World Traveller customers were served a complimentary snack, a three-course meal and a complimentary bar service of hot and cold drinks.
The British Airways’ team of chefs has developed a four-course meal packed with flavours that customers can taste at 38 000 feet. The menu is changed every three months.
Customers are welcomed with pretzels and a drink. This is followed by a meal that includes a salad, a choice of mains, dessert, biscuits and cheese.
On overnight flights, customers are offered a tuck-box with options such as Dairy Milk Buttons, Twix, Kit Kats and Mini Cheddars. These are also available in the galley for people to help themselves.
Again, in designing this menu, the catering team paid attention to what customers consider important. An example is that they want to be able to save some items for later in the flight, so the water cup has been replaced with a bottle of Highland Spring Water and the tuck-box added.
Another focus is on regional flavours. On Kenyan routes, the first choice in each cabin is a route-specific East African dish.
Catering is just one part of the investment. Other innovations customers can look forward to are:
- Industry-leading WiFi that is being rolled out across the fleet. It is already on over 50 long-haul aircraft.
- Improvements to the BA app including adding Apple’s Siri voice service for iPhone users;
- The first and only family check-in zone in the UK and;
- Seventy-two more self-service bag drops at Heathrow, tripling the number already in service.