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Economy class goes gourmet

Story highlights

  • Airlines are giving economy customers the option to upgrade their meal
  • The quality of these premium meals tries to mimic first-class fare
  • Many carriers are teaming with high-profile restaurants to create more exciting menus
  • Logistics means only a handful of routes offer upgraded fare

In-flight meals don't have a stellar reputation but a handful of airlines are bringing first class food to those stuck in economy class.

Airlines across Europe and the U.S. are now offering economy passengers the chance to upgrade their meals, ordering ahead of their flight, and choosing from menus more readily found in cabins at the front of the plane.

"The craze started last year, and since then, every airline has jumped on the bandwagon to have a pre-order program," notes Nikos Loukas, an airline catering consultant, and founder of inflightfeed.com.

AirBerlin was the first carrier to launch an a la carte service for economy customers, teaming with upscale German restaurant Sansibar. The onboard menu includes a favorite from the restaurant's own: a veal and pork currywurst.

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Adding some local flavor is just one way make an airline's in-flight experience stand out.

Blaine Miyasato, Hawaiian Airline's vice president of product development, has joined with local businesses to source items that evoke the spirit of Hawaii -- from wasabi ranch popcorn to toffee covered macadamia nuts.

    "We wanted to showcase the products that promote the ambiance that makes Hawaii so special," he explained.

    Statistics are showing that passengers are willing to pay a little extra for better food.

    Austrian Airways sells roughly 600,000 pre-ordered meals a year, while U.S. Airways, which in August became the first American carrier to launch premium dining in economy class, estimates it has sold over 5,000 units from its DineFresh menu.

    See also: Flying foodies soar as in-flight food ratings rocket

    "We realized we had a premium customer sitting in economy class who would appreciate and purchase an on board culinary experience," notes Russ Brown, U.S. Airways' director of product planning and development.

    "We tried to use an upscale bento box as a footprint," says Brown. "We designed it so that when the product is delivered to the customer, it looks and feels like a present."

    Nearly every carrier that offers the service only does so on flights that leave from their home hub.

    "When you expand to different countries, you have to first do a menu design workshop, to help make sure you have all the components and produce in place," explains Brown.

    Currently, U.S. Airways sells DineFresh meals only on flights leaving from Philadelphia and Charlotte, though they are planning to expand the program in the future.

    "Right now, by only operating out of two hubs, it's easy to control the consistency of the product," he adds.

    Read more: Why travel snacks matter

    Because the meals are customized, passengers are required to order anywhere from 24 to 48 hours in advance, though that may also change in the future. Austrian Airlines allows passengers leaving from Vienna to order meals one hour prior to departure from a special kiosk at the airport.

    KLM introduced a la carte offerings on select flights last November. The move, says the airline, was prompted more by customer demand than the prospect of generating extra revenue.

    "Our main goal was to offer passengers more choice. As handling and logistics are more complex with a la carte, additional costs are made by KLM," says Jane Jong-Baw, a spokeswoman for the airline.

    Given the cost and the bother for airlines, one wonders what's really in it for them.

    Loukas points out that better in-flight meals help build brand loyalty.

    "I'm a big believer that food can make or break a flight," he says.

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