Traditional airplane snacks like pretzels just don't cut it for Nikita Joshi, a 24-year-old biomedical engineer from Youngstown, Ohio.
"I try not to eat a lot of gluten stuff. I'm not allergic," she said, adding that she feels better when she avoids the "heaviness" of bread products and often just buys a fruit cup at the airport before a flight. She used to bring peanut butter cups but is concerned about passenger allergies to peanuts.
A shift in consumer preferences and diets toward options perceived as fresher, healthier and made with high-quality ingredients that have roiled the Big Food industry is now playing out on airplane tray tables at 36,000 feet, and airlines are scrambling to keep up. Carriers are hiring celebrity chefs, eschewing allergy-triggering peanuts and expanding their menus with gluten-free dishes, tastier vegan options and better ingredients to help build loyalty among picky travelers.
"Based on the number of requests we get you'd think 50 percent of people are gluten-free or vegetarian," quipped David Rodriguez, who manages Alaska Airlines' food and beverage service. The Seattle-based airline is considering adding gluten-free snacks like cookies or crackers but Rodriguez says it has to taste good and that the airline doesn't want to "just have it to have it." The airlines' best seller from its on-board food cart is an $8.50 fruit-and-cheese plate.
Price is generally the most important factor when travelers select an airline, according to the International Air Transport Association, which represents most of the world's airlines. But a recent survey found that on-board service, along with the boarding process, and baggage collection help drive passenger satisfaction with a carrier.
"We know that food and beverage make up a very small piece of the customer decision to purchase," he said, adding that having food options on board drives an "emotional connection" to the airline.
Airlines have largely stopped serving packaged peanuts due to passenger allergies. Southwest Airlines became the most recent airline to take that step last month when announced it would stop serving peanuts on board.
"No airline wants to be responsible for a passenger having a terrible allergic reaction," said Henry Harteveldt, who founded Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry consulting firm.