It's one thing for an airline to have superb business class seats and stellar service – those are must-haves when you're chasing the hearts and wallets of premium passengers.
And airlines have long realised that restaurant-grade meals can't be overlooked.
But they're also cottoning onto the importance of serving those meals on something other than your plain Jane tableware.
Done right, the crockery, cutlery and even the cups all become part of the experience.
Exhibit A: Qantas' new tableware – including Noritake bone china crockery, plus bespoke cutlery and glassware – from its designer de jour David Caon.
Although set to debut on the airline's Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the range will also replace the current Marc Newson set – including the knives, forks and spoons that are often derided as looking more camping kit than first class cabin – across the entire fleet (in first class, business class and premium economy) as well as in first and business lounges.
There's an elegant, refined and almost minimalist Japanese quality to Caon's set, which is a result of function – lightweight, robustness and usability – trumping form.
"I'm not interested in if people like or hate the design," the award-winning Aussie designer tells High Flyer with disarming candour, "only in if they like or hate how it works."
Embracing smart design
Caon began working on the range in May 2016, with the pieces first taking shape as experimental cardboard cutouts, then modelled on-screen using 3D software and later prototyped using a 3D printer.
While Caon started from a clean sheet some of the collection seems like a stylish refinement of the Newson design, with usability echoes such as a finger-friendly groove in the knife.
There are also two signature pieces – a dinner plate and canapé dish – with a 'grey ink' motif.
One of Caon's favourite pieces is the teapot with a lid that locks into the top, to reduce that constant annoying clinking coming from the galley, especially at breakfast time when you might still be sleeping.
There are fuel-saving benefits, too – the new range represents an average 11 per cent reduction in weight from the previous Newson collection, including trimming the weight of meal carts on the Boeing 787 by some 40 per cent, which will result in an annual saving of 535 metric tons of jet fuel.
Finnair has gone down a similarly home-grown route in its partnership with iconic Finnish design house Marimekko.
The airline cleverly embraced Marimekko's colour palette and patterns to offset its own tendencies towards clean but somewhat bland cabin interiors of what's been called 'grey flying' and help turn Finnair into what its CEO calls "a design airline".
Marimekko didn't just restrict itself to playfully-decorated tableware. Napkins, cushions pillows, rugs and even slippers bring splashes of green and blue into the cabin, while the firm's signature 'Unikko' poppy even decorates some of Finnair's jets in an eye-catching livery.
US carrier Delta Airlines looked beyond its borders when the time came to upgrade its first class and business class tableware, and settled on Italy's hip Alessi.
The airline now flies a staggeringly broad 86-piece collection based on its best-selling home accessories – including coffee-makers, serving trays and salt-and-pepper shakers – but redesigned to reduce their weight.
The collection is based on popular items from six of the 300 designers who have created products for Alessi in recent years, such as the bestselling Big Love spoon by Miriam Mirri.
"It's very playful, which is what drew us," explains Allison Ausband, Delta's senior vice president of in-flight service. "When you think about our customers and the journey that they're on, it'll bring a smile to their face."
Not your average souvenir
But as with Qantas' Marc Newson and new David Caon designs, and Finnair's Marimekko pieces, there's always the risk that light-fingered passengers may pocket the odd piece as a souvenir.
However, given that they're all branded with "Alessi for Delta", the feeling is that this will promote the airline more than punish it, says Jaime Jewell, Delta's general manager of brand strategy and customer experience.
"If a couple of our Big Love spoons end up on the Thanksgiving dinner table, I wouldn't mind.
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 . His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of 51698009 readers.
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