Come fly with me, mate

Andrew Tuck looks at fresh food and feather bed flights
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The Independent Online
A LEADING airline is ditching the meal trolley and retraining its staff to become chefs in the sky as part a major overhaul of its services.

Australian carrier Qantas is also slashing the number of seats to allow for some of the largest beds on any airline - couples will now be able to share cosy twin beds while 30,000 feet up.

All you need to enjoy this level of hospitality is a first class ticket which, for the London to Sydney route, will set you back between pounds 5,000 and pounds 6,000 - compared with an average of pounds 700 in economy.

The first of the fleet's Boeing 747 aircraft has been sent for refurbishment and will be back in service by June. The radical new approach to airline meals, meanwhile, is already under way.

Ross Keenan, Qantas's manager for the UK and Ireland, says that the demand for first class travel from these islands has grown and grown. "The British traveller has a higher propensity for booking first class. That's because of the distances between Australia and Britain, but also because your economy is on a roll."

In a bid to secure more of this lucrative custom, Qantas undertook a major reassessment of its services, Mr Keenan explains. It soon discovered that while it was spending huge sums on catering, the results were often lacklustre, or as he admits, "pretty awful". So in came Neil Perry, owner of some of Sydney's hippest restaurants, including the award-winning Rockpool.

He persuaded Qantas to abandon taste-free pre-cooked dishes and train its cabin crew to cook fresh food instead. Some 350 staff were selected to serve exclusively in the first class cabins and trained to prepare such dishes as Shredded Chicken and Tamarind Salad on Wonton Pastry, to the restaurateur's standards. Mr Perry also showed them how to run the galley like a restaurant, taking orders when ever people want to eat and serving dishes straight to the table on the finest china.

But it's the new British-made bed-seats that will cause excitement among the senior politicians and corporate heads who fly first class. Wider than those on British Airways, and with more personal storage space, the 6ft 6in long beds can be made to lie completely flat.

Qantas admits that it will be unable to stay ahead of it competitors for long. "In the Seventies we were the first airline to introduce a business class, now everyone has it. I'm sure everyone will soon have copied these changes too," says Mr Keenan.

But away from key long-haul routes, the future of first class is increasingly insecure. Alex McWhirter, of Business Traveller magazine, says that carriers such as KLM, Continental, Alitalia and SAS have ditched this elite service in favour of expanding their business class seating. Virgin Atlantic famously launched without a first class cabin at all.

t If you are going to fly with Qantas make sure that you don't dress too casually - even if you are seated in economy. Hugh Craig and Peter Illetschko were returning to London last month after a beach holiday in Thailand. But when they attempted to board their plane a steward told the pair they would not be able to fly as the clothes they were wearing did not meet the airline's dress code.

Mr Craig explains: "I was wearing long shorts, training shoes and a singlet, Peter had on long shorts, a T-shirt and reef shoes. At first we thought the steward was just joking until he said: 'I can have you off this plane like that.' Finally he relented and we were able to take our seats, but we were really shocked."