Chicken or fish – the age-old options for economy-class airline passengers – are about to be supplanted by more exotic choices, as à la carte menus make their way from the front to the rear of passenger jets.
From next month, the Dutch airline KLM will offer long-haul passengers departing from its hub in Amsterdam a choice of à la carte meals.
The concept comes with catches: there are only four options, passengers must select their meal at least 48 hours in advance, and there is a surcharge of €12-€15 (£11-£13) on top of the fare.
Starting on 14 September, travellers can choose from one of three meals based on different cuisines – Japanese, Italian and Indonesian – and an upgraded vegetarian option. Erik Varwijk, KLM's managing director, said: "This is a further response to growing customer demand... offering more choice and more options."
But the frequent-flyer community is divided over whether the move represents a turning of the tide towards better in-flight catering, or is merely the latest device for squeezing yet more "ancillary revenue" from long-suffering passengers.
When commercial aviation enjoyed its first surge of expansion after the Second World War, dining comprised an essential element of the in-flight experience. Elaborate meals were served by highly trained staff, partly to assuage the tedium in the era before seat-back televisions and video-on-demand, and partly because journeys took so long: the first commercial jet aircraft, Comet, took six hops to get from Heathrow to Johannesburg.
Some of the ideas that are now being marketed by airlines as innovations, such as on-board chefs, were commonplace.
When Concorde entered service in 1976, the elaborate meal service – complete with vintage champagne and after-dinner cigars – that British Airways offered helped to distract attention from the supersonic jet's cramped, narrow fuselage.
Mouth-watering offerings were always, however, the preserve of premium passengers. Budget travellers have grown accustomed to unappetising offerings with limited choice, to be consumed cheerlessly in the cramped quarters of economy class.
KLM has run a successful trial of the à la carte concept, and is now rolling it out to passengers on its long-haul network, apart from Toronto, San Francisco, Tel Aviv and Cairo.
If the concept works, KLM's parent airline, Air France, may adopt it. But British Airways will not. A spokesman told The Independent: "We offer our customers a wide range of free food and drink on board our flights and have no plans to introduce paid-for, in-flight catering – of any type."
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