Airlines luring business travelers with improved mealsAs airlines struggle to return to profitability amid volatile energy prices, they are increasingly focusing on improving services for passengers. In an effort to lure discerning travelers, carriers are eyeing their food offerings as a means of driving revenue and bolstering lagging earnings.

Though airline meals are hardly known as culinary masterpieces, they were once a major part of any plane ride. Before the U.S. deregulated the airline sector in the 1970s, carriers routinely worked with some of the best known and respected chefs as they sought to stand out among the competition.

Over the past few years, carriers have witnessed their profits climb – albeit modestly – thanks to the myriad new fees they levy for formerly free services. Nearly all carriers currently charge passengers for checking bags and eating onboard meals, and the revenue they garner from them has helped offset the surging cost of oil and other expenses.

While carriers have no intention of backtracking on the fees that have now become a routine part of the flying experience, they are also endeavoring to drive revenue through a number of other measures. Like businesses operating in nearly every industry, carriers are working to attract business travelers, particularly those willing to pay more money for added services and benefits.

To do so, they are harking back to the days of yore, when carriers routinely served full-service meals during flights. However, there are a number of obstacles they must overcome as they endeavor to create the tastiest, most cost-efficient meals they can muster, The New York Times reports.

Airline executives are focusing on the strategic sourcing of particular foods as they strive to concoct the perfect onboard meal. Moreover, they are working with scientists in an effort to engineer food that actually tastes good at high altitudes. While anyone who has ever traveled on a plane before can attest to the fact that almost all foods taste bland, there is actually a science underlying the overwhelming sense of indifference that most passengers experience while eating a cold turkey sandwich during a flight.

The atmosphere inside the cabin of a plane dries out passengers' noses, even before takeoff. Compounding the loss of the sense of smell, a major contributor to the sense of taste, is that the high altitudes reached by planes effectively numb more than one-third of a person's taste buds. As a result, passengers crave acidic foods, even if they would normally not indulge in such items while at sea level.

Carriers must balance the shifting needs of the palate with financial constraints. A number of airlines are now working with celebrity chefs as they strive to strike the perfect balance between cost and taste, with Delta recently hiring Michael Chiarello to help devise its new menu strategy.

Chiarello spent the better part of six months testing a number of food combinations that airline passengers would enjoy, even without the full use of their taste buds. Delta carefully monitors its food catering division, as the carrier emphasized supply chain management and cost reduction campaigns as a means of reducing food expenditures.

While Chiarello recently unveiled a number of potential meal ideas to Delta executives, the carrier was quick to focus on the potential costs of each dish. Even subtle changes to a meal can help airlines carry out business cost reduction initiatives, as Delta learned a few years ago when it reduced the size of one of its steak offerings by one ounce – a move that has saved the company more than $250,000 annually.

As airlines continue to compete for business travelers, they are overhauling programs and services. Amid record oil prices, they nonetheless remain committed to bolstering profit margins.

Bon appétit.

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