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Trends for the air and the sea

As the competition only grows in the airline and cruise line industries, both are upping their foodservice game to stand out.

6 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Airline foodservice inflight food


You don’t need a passport to uncover trends from the air and sea. In Datassential’s Creative Concepts: Airlines and Creatives Concepts: Cruise Lines, we explore how cruise lines and airlines are adapting to meet consumers’ evolving needs. Half of Americans flew in 2017, according to Airlines for America, and in 2018 roughly 26 million passengers were carried on cruise ships worldwide, according to Cruise Market Watch. Even if airlines and cruise lines aren’t your target, though, there are still plenty of takeaways for on-land operators. As the competition only grows in the airline and cruise line industries, both are upping their foodservice game to stand out. Below are a few trends we’re seeing in the air and on the sea.

Upgraded airline foodservice is taking off

What do you think of when it comes to airline food? Pretzels or tomato juice might come to mind, but airlines are working hard to change that image with the introduction of trend-forward, globally-inspired dishes (kurobuta pork, anyone?), premium beverages like craft beers and wine served by sommeliers, convenient snack boxes, and more. After years of passengers feeling like they’re being nickel-and-dimed for everything on flights, many airlines are also re-introducing free snacks (which more than half of consumers want, according to Creative Concepts: Airlines) and adding complimentary meals on more flights. Across the industry, the concepts below are becoming the new norm:

  • Many major airlines are now partnering with well-known chefs to provide passengers with more unique menu options (nearly a quarter of consumers want chef-designed meals on flights). In turn, these star chefs are also attracting flying foodies who can increase brand recognition through social media.
  • If you’re flying to a destination rich with local ingredients, why not serve them onboard? Today some airlines are customizing menus to correspond with the route they’ll be served on. Alaska Airlines spent over a year researching popular ingredients and hosting tastings and learned that local ingredients are one of passengers’ highest priorities.
  • Healthy snacks are offered on every mainstream airline, and consumers are demanding more functional foods, too. However, while on-land operators might look to protein-rich items, the functional aspects desired by airline passengers might differ: they may not need more energy, but rather something to help them relax and ease their flight jitters. For instance, now-defunct UK-based Monarch Airlines in the past created a special mood box for passengers that included relaxing lavender and green tea rice cakes for during the flight.
  • Many airlines are now working with chefs and scientists to come up with innovative ways to keep ingredients moist and flavorful, as it’s a well-known fact that flying impacts both food and taste perceptions. Scottish brewer BrewDog (which has multiple US locations) this year is launching “BrewDog Airlines” and will host the “highest-ever beer tasting onboard,” featuring a beer specifically designed to taste better at higher altitudes.

All aboard for cruise line concepts

According to Creative Concepts: Cruise Lines, 67% of consumers choose what cruise line to vacation on based on the available dining options, making it vital for cruise lines to offer on-trend food and beverage options and experiences to differentiate themselves from the competition. Overall, 39% of consumers say they love cruise line eats, while 60% say they’d even visit the onboard restaurants that cost extra (meaning they aren’t included in the typical all-inclusive ticket), demonstrating that passengers aren’t afraid to shell out extra for premium dishes or experiences. To reach younger generations, a number of cruise lines are also dropping the word “cruise” from their names since “cruise” can have “associations with old people,” Ulf Henrick Wynnsdale, president and CEO of Norwegian Yacht Voyages, said in a statement. Below are a few other ways cruise lines are evolving to appeal to younger generations (according to Datassential’s Lodging & Recreation Keynote Report, 44% of millennials increased their cruise line visitations from 2016-2017):

  • Many cruise lines are looking to leverage more eco-friendly and sustainable practices, two areas millennials are particularly passionate about. In an effort to reduce waste, for instance, up-and-coming cruise line Virgin Voyages won’t offer disposable plastic items like bags, straws or beverage bottles.
  • Like airlines, cruise lines are also partnering with well-known chefs to refresh restaurant concepts and experiences. “Thanks to TV cooking shows and food competitions, more people are talking about food. And more cruise guests are identifying themselves as ‘foodies,’” cruise expert and influencer Vanessa Lee said in a Crystal Cruises news release. She notes that “today, you can sample the cuisine of some of the best chefs in the world on cruise ships.” For instance, since 2014 Top Chef at Sea (inspired by the TV show “Top Chef”) has been an attraction onboard most Celebrity Cruises. The experience offers passengers the chance to participate in Quickfire Challenges (a series of contests including things like entrée preparation) and Top Chef Night, which is conceived by popular “cheftestants” from the show. On-land operators could similarly leverage concepts that play off of favorite TV shows – according to Creative Concepts: Pop Culture, over 40% of consumers would visit a pop culture concept.
  • Technology-forward concepts are making waves on cruise lines and getting not just the media’s but also guests’ attention – aboard ships, passengers may now encounter 3D animations appearing on their plates or bartender robots that can prepare two custom cocktails in only a minute.
  • Today leveraging locally-sourced and globally-inspired ingredients in dishes is just as important to cruise lines as it is to on-land operators. Some ships are now menuing items reflective of the ports of call (a concept 66% of consumers are interested in, according to Creative Concepts: Cruise Lines), so passengers can get a taste of the local cuisine.

Disembark inspired

Although airlines and cruise lines both face some unique challenges (at airports, for instance, steak knives can’t be given to diners to cut their meat), on-land operations can still take inspiration from how these industries are adapting their foodservice concepts to reach a broader market with the introduction of trending health- and plant-forward foods, chef-driven cuisine, local and global flavors, tech-forward concepts and more.

Jaclyn Marks is the senior publications specialist at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry. To learn more, contact Datassential managing director Brian Darr at [email protected].


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