PARIS - Michelin-star food and vintage champagne: airlines are pulling out all the stops to cater to their first-class passengers' tastes, as they seek a larger slice of the highly profitable market.
"Business class has become the main battleground for all companies because the market in this very profitable sector is highly competitive and the clients very demanding," said Bertrand Mouly-Aigrot, aviation expert at Archery strategy consulting.
The consultancy estimates the airline food market is worth a tasty 10 billion euros (US$12.3 billion) with a wide discrepancy between the various classes of travel.
A dish in economy tends to cost between five and nine euros, business class between 15 and 30 euros and for first class, the sky is - literally - the limit.
Singapore Airlines touts itself as "the only company to offer the world's two most prestigious champagnes: Dom Perignon and Krug Grande Cuvee".
The airline spends around 18.4 million euros (US$22.5 million) every year just on champagne and wine, with catering amounting to 5.5 per cent of its total costs.
And with companies scrambling to stand out from the crowd with the extravagance of their menu, they are hiring top chefs to create tasty morsels.
"A meal helps to make people feel secure, to comfort people, to de-stress people," said Anne-Sophie Pic, the only female chef in France to hold three Michelin stars, who creates the first-class menu for Air France.
Posh picnic hampers
But serving haute cuisine to highly international and demanding diners at 30,000 feet brings its own challenges.
The chefs have to create a menu without certain ingredients - raw fish is banned for example and cabbage and beans ill-advised given the close proximity and confined environment of the cabin.
Cultural niceties also have to be taken into account and not just the well-known aversions to pork: rabbit, for example, is considered delicious in France but seen as bad luck in certain religions - not what you want when flying.
Additionally, tastebuds act differently at altitude and the cabin air is very dry, which also affects how the food tastes.
Chefs find themselves having to add flavour enhancers to compensate. "We add ginger to our sauces to give them a certain bite," said Michel Nugues, one of the top chefs at Servair airline catering firm.