Not everyone thinks airline food is a joke.
Take Siegfried Lang, for example.
Lang is responsible for overseeing 26 million meals Houston-based Continental Airlines will serve passengers this year.
Lang has 25 years of experience in developing airline food, including the past nine with Continental, where he is executive chef and manager of food and beverage service.
Lang and Lynda Zane, Continental’s senior director of dining services, recently prepared a preview of new meals for a tasting by Continental’s top two executives - Chairman Gordon Bethune and President Greg Brenneman - during a feast at a catering kitchen near Bush Intercontinental Airport.
The newly revamped meals will be rolled out in May in Continental’s business-class cabins on transAtlantic flights.
These meals include a new assortment of pasta dishes that will be served from a cart by flight attendants.
On hand were a dozen chefs wearing white uniforms and big puffy hats, including several from the airline’s “Continental Congress of Chefs.”
These are cooks from four U.S. restaurant groups.
The revamped business-class fare is one of two upcoming food-service upgrades in the works: In April, Continental will introduce 15 new special meals provided as alternatives for passengers who are restricted to specific diets, such as strict vegetarian, low-sodium, kosher, Hindu, Muslim and diabetic meals.
The changes are coming at a time when airline food - long considered a joking matter - is getting more attention as major carriers are living high on the hog and filling seats in record numbers.
After slashing in-flight meals and snacks in recent years to reduce costs, there are signs big airlines are eyeing food service as a competitive tool.
Food spending among the major airlines increased to an average of $4.47 per passenger in the third quarter of 1997, according to carrier reports compiled by GKMG Consulting Services for Aviation Daily.
This compares with an average of $4.33 per passenger in 1995. Food spending peaked at $5.73 per passenger in 1992 as the industry fell into a tailspin and suffered steep losses.
Eating on the fly is getting more attention: A recent poll by LSG-Sky Chefs found nearly a third of frequent fliers are willing to change airlines if they can expect superior food.
On flights of three hours or more, 76 percent of those surveyed said food is important, and 67 percent were interested in healthy, high-quality food.
“I think airlines are going full circle. They want to attract as high-quality passengers as they can because those passengers are going to pay the most money. The real battleground is the high-paying business passenger,” said Mike Miller, a consultant with Avitas, an airline industry consulting firm in Arlington, Va.
Continental’s Bethune said his airline was the first to start the trend of adding food. In 1995, Continental began restoring meals on flights that had only snacks or no food at all, depending on the time of day of the flight.
“My opinion would be they’re giving themselves too much credit,” said Bob Sobczewski, manager of on-board services for Chicago-based United Airlines. “We don’t follow what other airlines do; we follow what our customers tell us to do.”
Continental ranks slightly below average among the nation’s 10 largest airlines in the amount spent on food per passenger.
Continental spent an average of $4.18 per passenger in the third quarter ended Sept. 30, compared with the average of $4.47 at other major airlines. Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines ($7.62) and United ($7.36) were at the top, while low-fare lord Southwest Airlines was at the bottom (21 cents per passenger).
“We’re OK with that,” Bethune said, referring to Continental’s ranking on food expenditures.
“Anybody can just put more expensive cream on here,” said Bethune, pointing to a menu item.
Food ranks No. 8 on the list of reasons why customers choose an airline, after things such as price, schedule, on-time performance, safety and frequent-flier awards, Lang said.
But food is king at certain times of day, Brenneman said.
“At 7 in the morning, it’s No. 1 on the list. At 2 in the afternoon, it’s like No. 12,” he said.