When you’re flying, do you prefer an everything bagel with schmear from your favorite New York City deli? Or a ribeye with all the fixings from your favorite old-school Omaha steakhouse? While major U.S. commercial airlines have had to scale back their in-flight dining options during the pandemic, private aviation caterers are once again stepping up their onboard meals.
Private jet dining is also subject to new safety regimens (think increased sanitization and no more communal cheese trays or sandwich platters), but their solutions go beyond grab-and-go snack packs. Instead, private aviation companies are focusing on personalizing the food options as much as possible, including allowing customers to request regional specialties, many of which are off-menu.
Amid the pandemic, many fliers are opting for private jets over commercial flights. Overall, private business travel is currently down just 35 percent year over year, compared to scheduled transport, which is down roughly 64 percent from 2019 levels. As more information has come out about how COVID-19 is transmitted, surface contamination has become lower risk. In turn, aviation companies have expanded their catering services to allow for more variety of food on board.
“Lou Malnati’s deep dish Chicago-style pizza comes to mind and is a favorite for members flying out of Chicago,” says Jamie Walker, president and CEO of Jet Linx. Although the majority of the catering requests are still for tray assortments (fruit, crudité, finger sandwiches, etc., individualized to prevent cross-contamination), the Jet Linx flight concierge team often fields customer requests for catered dinners from restaurants in the market they’re departing or for surprises that include something unique from the local culinary scene.
One off-menu catering order came from a Boston-based Jet Linx member’s trip to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting last year. “Our Omaha Flight Concierge team picked up a large order from Via Farina for the entire family to enjoy on their flight home to Boston,” he says, referencing the area’s popular Italian restaurant. “They ordered a bunch of appetizers, pizzas, and pasta dishes served family-style. Via Farina was a huge success with them, and they were impressed by our service.”
According to Walker, roughly 30 percent of the company’s flights involve specific catering beyond the standard aircraft stock. (All flights contain a standard pantry stocked with a mix of libations, juices, other beverages, snacks, and candy.) Of the passengers who choose to utilize catering options, about 85 percent of them order from the preset catering menu, which Jet Linx puts together with local caterers at each destination.
Air Culinaire, one such caterer for private jets worldwide, has been in the business for 20 years. Co-founder and SVP of sales and marketing Paul Schweitzer describes his company’s on-demand features as “like 1-800-Flowers for in-flight catering across the globe.” Passengers can use the Air Culinaire menu app and search by their airport code to locate the general available menu for each destination. “We absolutely try to provide a local or regional option” in terms of menu items, he says.
Kathy Silvey, co-owner of A Catered Affair in Omaha, Nebraska, works with Air Culinaire, Jet Linx, and NetJets. “Prior to COVID-19, 25 percent of our business was catering for private aviation, and during this pandemic era, that figure has jumped to 45 percent,” she says. As far as using local purveyors, A Catered Affair does that as much as possible for their from-scratch kitchen.
Other private aviation companies are turning to customized location-centric menus to differentiate their in-flight meals. NetJets, for instance, partners with aviation caterers around the globe, with a specific focus on meal selections that are seasonal, regional, highlight the chefs’ creativity, and do well at elevation. The company’s Signature Selection Menu has regional dishes derived from local ingredients in more than 40 major markets across 240 airports, such as tuna tartare in South Florida, lobster bruschetta in Boston, and Texas carpaccio in Houston.
If those regional menu items simply aren’t appealing, NetJets’ team will work to procure whatever local delicacy you’re craving.
As Gallagher puts it: “NetJets will do everything possible to meet all requests made for in-flight dining, from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to your favorite bakery’s croissant.”