Breaking news: Australia’s main airlines are competing on service instead of removing it. And putting the service back in the ticket price instead of turning it into an an endlessly-growing array of “ancillary services”.
From September 26, Virgin Australia passengers in all classes will be served complimentary meals on all transcontinental flights between Perth and the east coast, matching the standard Qantas service for the first time.
Who would have thought that airlines in any theatre of operations would ever again compete on service? What’s happening in Australia is truly unique in the world as Virgin transforms itself from cheap and cheerful backpacker carrier to a business airline.
And part of the competition will be to play off its chef-branded cooking against Qantas’s chef-branded cooking – possibly the best thing to have happened to airline food anywhere in the world in the past half-century.
The fact that Qantas’s Neil Perry and Virgin’s Luke Mangan are brands that own or operate real restaurants means that, if their tucker is not up to scratch, it will blow back on them or their properties.
It’s like an airborne Masterchef challenge: each is given a tiny budget -- $5 to $8 per meal in economy, I’m guessing (it’s a secret in this highly competitive contest) – to produce the yummiest serve they can muster.
Why wasn’t it always like this in the days when airline food was a production line of anonymous platefuls served by the thousand from industrial kitchens in the main capital cities?
Of course, if no-one has his or her name on the dish, there are no standards other than health regulations. And, for 50 years from the 1950s, airlines acquired a reputation for the most tasteless, cheapest mush it was possible to put on a plate. The more fares fell – as they have done continuously for decades – the more the squeeze on the airlines to economise until “free” food was eventually abolished on many airlines about a decade ago, especially on routes under two hours.
Not too long ago, airline food looked and tasted like something put together by the accountants overseeing the cost inputs.
It did not have to be like that. But the flying business’s first impulse when presented with the phenomenon of the low-cost airline was to cut back on everything: you would simply get a flying chair with the smallest permissible space per seat.
It has always bemused me that the airline industry – as prone to fashion as any other department of the economy – did not opt for choice: if you wanted a meal, you could pay for it. And if you were offering meals, why not excel – especially since passenger planes have legislated minimum cabin crew numbers otherwise unoccupied for much of the flight?
Instead, cost-cutting accountants have been allowed to roam free though the industry. It’s all about slashing the fixed cost of operating flights, such as the extra cost of loading pre-heated meals with expensive special equipment, and cutting the all-up weight of the flight, to enable an increased weight allocation for revenue-generating cargo.
Well, finally, airlines have realised they can compete on food, at least on sectors of more than three hours, where the cost of provided meals is proportionately less than on short-haul interstate routes.
However, there’s still no word on whether Virgin Australia will go head-to-head with Qantas on the “other” transcontintental routes – from Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Darwin, although a Virgin spokeswoman tells me that service levels are constantly under review.
Has airline food improved? Are you a Neil Perry fan as a result of the meals Qantas serves? Have you had a Luke Mangan meal aboard Virgin Australia? Do you think meal service on longer routes is a winner? Should the airlines just concentrate of removing all the costs they can?