Taking a look at new in-flight food with a United Airlines executive chef

To many people, airline food has long been nothing more than the age old question of chicken of beef. In recent years, most airlines made some pretty big changes to their food offering. United Airlines was kind enough to invite Gadling to their world headquarters, for a sneak peek behind the scenes of their newest food and beverage lineup.

The highlight of the visit was an executive chef from United’s catering partner. This great chef explained to us how a meal is designed, how freshness is ensured, and what kind of food travels well (and what does not).
Preparing airline meals

When preparing airline food, the executive chef works alongside meal planners from United Airlines. Domestic US food is prepared at local catering stations, and the executive chef travels to each and every one of them to train the local staff.

Some ingredients (like tomatoes) don’t fly very well, and their moisture will turn any sandwich into a soggy mess, so those are avoided. The same goes for the granola yogurt, to prevent the granola turning into a soggy goo, it is stored in a separate container inside the product.

When designing the current food selection, United Airlines held focus sessions with their customers. The airline held 12 different focus sessions, and interviewed 3000 customers. The feedback included more organic options, and the option to upgrade. Even though many customers responded that they’d prefer healthier food, the “classic” option remains the most popular, and who can blame them – Jelly Belly’s and Goldfish crackers are a great in-air snack.

The same goes for the a la carte selection – even though the lineup includes healthy choices, the Lays Stax chips are the number one seller.

Now the new lineup is in production, the airline continues to gather customer feedback, as well as feedback from flight attendants. Cabin crew have access to a system that collects their sales and customer satisfaction results. In addition to this, they collect information on a daily basis from the credit card terminals.

All this information is gathered and it gives the airline a really good idea of what is selling (and what is not). Regular audits even take a look at the trays coming back from passengers, to get an idea whether a particular ingredient isn’t working out.

Choice Menu snack boxes

Obviously, times have changed, and being fed is no longer a given. We got to sample all the various snack boxes sold on United Airlines (domestic) flights. The selection was surprisingly decent – they currently offer four different snack boxes:

Active – Stoned classics tortilla chips, Heinz Salsa, Blue Diamond almonds, Think Fruit chocolate, Pomegranate Power Bar, Newmans Own Organic Raisins, Hannah’s Honey cured turkey stick

Classic – Kettle backyard BBQ chips, Oreo cookies, Jelly Belly gourmet jelly beans, Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers, Sparrer beef salami, Gourmet Cheddar Cheese spread, Pepperidge Farm cookies

Luxe – Rondele peppercorn Parmesan cheese spread, Pepperidge Farm crackers, Food Should Taste Good tortilla chips, Oloves Mediterranean olives, Wild Garden hummus dip, Real Torino bread sticks, Ashers dark chocolate pretzel

Organic– Late July organic cheddar cheese crackers, Terra Nostra Organic dark chocolate square, Kettle Valley Organic fruit snack, Nature’s Path organic pumpkin flaxplus granola, Bare Fruit Organic cinnamon apple chips

The Active and Classic snack boxes cost $6, and the Luxe and Classic boxes cost $7 , which is actually a very good deal, considering the amount and the variety of food. Personally I would also like to see a more kid friendly version, but that is my only minor complaint.

A La Carte products

Flights also carry an a la carte selection with the following products: Lay’s Stax chips, Toblerone bar, Walkers Shortbread cookies, Fisher Salty Nut mix, Clif Bar Oatmeal Raisin Walnut and Odwalla Banana Nut nutritional bar. These a la carte items are $3 each.

Fresh Choice Menu items before 10am

These products are part of the United Airlines Choice Menu Fresh Items. On flights before 10am, passengers can order one of three fresh items:

  • Traditional blueberry muffin ($3)
  • Continental breakfast – apple croissant, strawberry yoghurt, cranberry crunch snack fruits ($5)
  • Gourmet deli plate – deli ham and turkey, pepper jack and cheddar cheese, hard boiled egg, dried apricots, almonds and Pepperidge farm crackers ($9)

Fresh Choice menu items after 10am

After 10am, the menu changes to sandwiches and salads. The salad selection offers three different choices;

  • Southwestern chicken salad – Romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, black beans, corn, red and yellow bell pepper strips and a salsa ranch dressing on the side.
  • Chicken Caesar salad – Grilled chicken, red and yellow bell pepper strips, shredded parmesan cheese, croutons on a bed of romaine lettuce, served with a classic Caesar dressing on the side.
  • Mediterranean salad – Romaine lettuce, kalamata olives, chick peas, red and yellow bell pepper strips, crumbled feta cheese, served with a Greek feta cheese dressing on the side.

Each salad is huge – definitely enough for a decent lunch or dinner. All salads come with their own pouch of dressing, and cost $9 each. Salads are designed as a “production plus three days”, which means they are designed to be loaded, and cooled for three days. All ingredients are designed to hold up just fine for this three day period.

In addition to the salads, you can also order an assorted cheese tray with Havarti, pepper jack and cheddar cheeses, dried apricots, almonds and assorted Pepperidge farm crackers for $7.

The sandwich selection offers the following choices:

  • Caprese sandwich – Roasted marinated tomatoes, low fat mozzarella, fresh baby spinach, pesto sauce on a tomato and herb focaccia bread.
  • Roast beef sandwich – Roast beef topped with romaine lettuce, horseradish mayonnaise on Ciabatta bread.
  • Turkey sandwich – Smoked turkey topped with romaine lettuce and sundried tomato aioli on multigrain bread

Each sandwich comes with a bag of potato chips and sells for $9. In addition to the before 10am / after 10am lineup, the airline also sells a $3 strawberry smoothie and a mixed berry yogurt parfait ($5) all day long.

Behind the scenes

The United Airlines team was very open, and no question was off limits. When asked what they learned from offering “branded” food back in 2005, they answered that the licensing fees involved with this food did not make sense. I have to agree with them – I’d rather have a good quality $6 United Airlines sandwich than a $10 Bennigans sandwich with the same ingredients, and the market obviously agreed, because the Bennigans chain went out of business last year. Focus groups also showed that customers did not value brand names as much, which came as a surprise to the airline.

The United Airlines team also listened to some of the ideas we had for them – and tips like online discount coupons for food, and the option to pre-order food were mentioned. Of course, since these were just random thoughts, nobody knows whether they’ll actually make it to reality.

Availability of food

The snack boxes are available on all flights over 2 hours, and the fresh food is only loaded on flights 5 hours and longer. This chart shows what you can expect on your flight:

All purchases can only be made with credit/debit cards as cash stopped being an acceptable form of payment last year.

I tried several of the dishes being sold on their flights, and really did enjoy them. I’m happy to see such a decent selection, but I still can’t help but have happy memories of the time when food was free, and dinner was a nice warm meal. That said, the snack boxes and fresh food do seem to offer a good balance between healthy and decadent. Thanks to United AIrlines for inviting us, and giving us a sneak peek of their current in-flight food lineup.

The future of airline food

Nobody knows which direction airline food is heading. When most of the major airlines removed free meals, it looked like airborne food would be gone for good. As competition heated up, airlines once again started to pay close attention to their onboard services.

New competitors like Virgin America are not only offering food, they are offering award winning dishes, and the ability to place food orders from the comfort of your seat-back entertainment system.

I’m secretly hoping that airlines will start making more use of online services, allowing passengers to place food orders when they pay for their ticket. This will remove surprises and may help families traveling with kids be more prepared for longer flights. In addition to this, airlines may need to start creating more variety. The United Airlines selection may appear to be quite impressive, but if someone is flying the same route twice a week, these dishes will become pretty boring.