In the dogfight over posh airline food, the sky's the limit

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 (S$16.6 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 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.The challenges don't stop there. Getting the timing and balance of flavours right for a Michelin-star dish is hard enough on the ground, never mind when having to reheat the food at altitude.

At the main Paris airport, Charles de Gaulle, thousands of sous-chefs whip up the food, dress the plate, then chill and store the meals that are served around the clock on planes around the world.

When just a few seconds of overheating can destroy a meal, chefs are so obsessed with the delicate issue of reheating their creations properly that they often train the stewards and air hostesses themselves.

And with so many different nationalities on board, when it comes to the menu, variety is the spice of life.

"The funny thing is our international guests usually want to try Indian food. The Indian ones want to try the international food. Of course we always offer them different choices," said Lieve Vannoppen, European catering manager for the Indian airline Jet Airways.

Boris Eloy, director of marketing and innovation at Servair, said that while the technology behind the catering is cutting-edge, the concept of offering air passengers something special dates back to the early days of flight.

"In 1933, the barmen of the Ritz and George V Hotels would spend their days off making picnic hampers for Air France passengers," said Eloy.