Meals have always been a crucial element of the business class equation, with airlines relying on feted chefs to deliver more than just "chicken or beef?" experience.
Neil Perry has been Qantas' high-flying foodie for 21 years, while Virgin Australia signed up Luke Mangan as their culinary counterpart in 2011.
In that time, both Perry and Mangan have witnessed a change in the inflight dining preferences of business travellers.
"In the last few years there's been a bigger emphasis on nutritious dishes, which is in line with the broader Australian focus on healthy living," Perry tells High Flyer.
"More and more customers are wanting lighter and healthier meals, so our menus include dishes such as fresh salads, soups, pressed juices, egg white omelettes and breakfast bowls."
Qantas says there's been a noticeable uptick in requests for egg white omelettes, while the healthy 'breakfast bowl' developed for its non-stop Perth-London flights – containing poached eggs avocado, kale, feta cheese, pepitas and tahini dressing – is also served in the airline's domestic business class lounges.
Yes, that does sound like hipster overload. But trust me, it's quite delicious and has become go-to whenever it's served.
Comfort and kombucha
Happily, travellers aren't force-led kale, quinoa and kombucha juice – comfort food remains on the menu.
"It's nice to be a bit indulgent when travelling," Perry admits. "So we still serve dishes like crumbed pork cutlet and braised beef cheeks" alongside the humble and always-popular breakfast toasties of bacon, egg and gruyere cheese served on east-west flights.
Likewise, Virgin chef Mangan has observed that "customers, especially on long-haul flights, are after lighter, healthier options."
"I remember when the hot meal was more popular," Mangan reflects.
"But nowadays more and more people, especially on long flights to LA and Hong Kong, are looking for a salad or a nice light soup or something like that. When I travel, I find I go the soup or the salad."
I tell Mangan that I avoid soups when flying as I'm always concerned about splashes landing on my nice clean business shirt, especially in turbulence.
Mangan jokes that his offerings are simply too good to spill. Judging by the delicious pork & shrimp wonton soup with bok choy and bamboo shoots which I risked on the airline's Melbourne-Hong Kong flight, he has a point. In the air, just as on the ground, the right soup always hits the spot.
Let's hear about the specials
Virgin Australia is about to roll out a new business class menu for domestic and international flights, with the new Melbourne-Hong Kong soup being another of Mangan's favourites: beef wonton soup with Szechuan pepper and bok choy.
One of the new standouts on domestic routes, Mangan says, will be a falafel with roasted mushrooms.
"It's got bacon, labneh and dukkah on it, it's like a Middle Eastern twist on a big classic breakfast if you know what I mean, but it's a bit healthier."
On Qantas flights, as with Qantas lounges, passengers have their own favourite dishes. The moussaka and green prawn curry can't be left off the menu for too long for fear of a riot in the aisles.
Variety is the spice
At the same time, travellers don't want to be faced with the same menu over and over again.
Qantas and Virgin Australia both rotate their menus through a complicated matrix to ensure that even the most frequent flyer regularly travel the same domestic route will be served plenty of variety.
"There are more than 220 meal options flying around the domestic network at any one time, which means even our most frequent flyers could potentially never get the same meal twice," Perry explains.
"The menu planning schedule is managed centrally to move menus around the network every week, making sure to avoid directly switching them between ports on common commuter routes such as Sydney-Melbourne."
Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of Australian Business tripler magazine. His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of 51698009 readers.
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