Monday, August 20, 2007

Coffee, Tea or.....?

Now I expect that many of you if asked would say if asked about 'in-flight service' would say - surely that’s an oxymoron. Others will be thinking those were the days. As airlines attempt to compete on price, ways of cutting costs usually centre around what you are given onboard the aircraft, or more accurately on a lot of flights these days, what you are not given.

However, from the silver service and linen napkins up at the sharp end of the aircraft, to the plastic boxes and bendy forks way back in steerage, the main event of a flight is usually the mouth-watering ordeal of the food and drink service. The technique for opening the silver foil top of a carton of orange juice while holding your elbows tightly into your sides, bracing your knees against the seat in front (which is still reclined) and not having the drink explode over you and your neighbour is something often practiced but seldom perfected.

The provision of refreshment is a hot topic in the airline industry; some airlines don’t, some do it brilliantly, others do it appallingly. But among those which continue with the ritual of handing out the trays of, at best, edible treats, it continues to be one of the main ways in which passengers judge the operator. We’re accustomed to expecting to be flown efficiently and quietly to where we’re going, more or less on schedule, and with good levels of safety and competence. The great excitement of the trip comes in cling film, is reheated in the aircraft galley and is delivered to us by a flight attendant. It’s costly (for the airline), heavy (so, again, costly in terms of fuel consumption), is difficult to handle for the staff and often ghastly to eat, but how else are they supposed to amuse the punters?

To give you an example of the kind of thought that goes into airline catering, especially in first class, let me tell you what happened when I joined Continental Airlines. We were to compete on the Houston to London route with British Caledonian, who had arguably the best service of any airline flying across the Atlantic; it was going to be tough. When I went to Houston, not long after I joined the American carrier, for a presentation on the food service I had one of those moments at which you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. After seeing what they had proposed for the meal service, which didn’t look at all bad, we got around to discussing the wine. When I say discussing the President of the company TOLD me what wine we were to be serving in first class; it was to be Texan wine – white wine if you really want to know. Never heard of it? Neither had I. Having lived in Texas for several years I assumed he was either joking or referring to Lone Star beer. It was not either of those two options; he really meant it. It took me a while but in the end persuaded him that we should perhaps not buck tradition and it would be more conducive to selling seats if we stuck to a Meursault or a Zinfandel.

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