NEW YORK (biztravel.com) - The potent smell of the rolling food cart slowly approaching your airline row can sometimes be enough to turn even the most hardened traveler's stomach.
Many have resorted to packing their own meals to avoid the unpalatable selections that airlines somehow legally manage to call "food." However, the next time you peel back that tinfoil covering, you may be in for a pleasant surprise, thanks to a recent study conducted by Lufthansa LSG Sky Chefs on frequent flyers' attitudes towards in-flight food service.
The study -- which reveals that most passengers consider food an important element of the flight and want to see some changes implemented -- may be the impetus that U.S. airlines need to recognize meal service as a crucial tool in improving customer satisfaction and encouraging loyalty.
According to the study's results, passengers on U.S. airlines are clearly dissatisfied with the quality of food served, frequency with which that food is served, meal selection, portion size, nutritional value and, of course, taste.
Compared with the food served on foreign airlines, U.S. airlines' culinary offerings are meager -- and passengers are noticing. In fact, statistics show that frequent travelers consider food service the second most important criteria when choosing non-U.S. airlines, compared to a low sixth-place ranking when choosing U.S. airlines.
The survey's results also reveal that 76 percent of those polled feel that airline food service is important on flights of three hours or more. Concerning the quality and selection of in-flight food, 43 percent would like airlines to introduce new and popular foods; 67 percent want healthier foods that are low in cholesterol and fat and high in nutritional value; and 75 percent want healthy foods even if it affects the taste.
"These responses indicate to us that airlines have a real opportunity to increase passenger satisfaction with food service," said Helmut Woelki, Chairman and CEO of LSG Lufthansa. "Those passengers who fly most often and on longer flights clearly have a desire for better, healthier, more diverse food."
If U.S. airlines take the results of this study seriously, culinary improvements could be on the way. Over the past several years, in-flight menus have expanded -- now including such choices as vegetarian, low-salt, diabetic, low-fat, fruit plates and more. But even more changes could be on the horizon.
"Today, the airline catering industry has the capability and technology to create menus based on diverse dietary requirements and food preferences," said Woelki. "We hope to use the study to develop new initiatives with the airlines."
Some particularly significant data shows passengers would be willing to change airlines, alter travel patterns and even pay more for improved in-flight food service. Of all the travelers polled, 32 percent would arrange their travel schedule to fly on airlines whose food was rated superior.
Additionally, results from airline premium passengers - well-educated flyers between the ages of 35 to 54 - show that 56 percent would make an effort to fly an airline whose food service was rated superior; 46 percent would pay more for excellent airline cuisine; and 27 percent would pay more for customized meals.
Food service could ultimately become a major factor in generating airline brand preference. According to the survey, 57 percent of the respondents said that it is difficult to distinguish between the food on U.S. airlines. So any domestic airline that improves food service could make a significant impact on customer preferences by differentiating themselves from the others in the pack.