For many, a cup of coffee is a central part of the experience of air travel. In the lounge and on board the aircraft, it is a necessity for some, thanks to extended delays, early departures, or long flights. However, it’s undeniable that convenience has historically been a priority for airline coffee, with quality and taste generally taking a back seat.
In recent years, a growing number of airlines have begun to invest in the coffee they serve to their customers, both in terms of sustainability and quality. Good coffee has become a competitive advantage for airlines, as well as an opportunity to represent local brands.
To learn more about this trend, I spoke to Ben Styche from Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, Solomon Tadele from OneKoo Coffee, and Marilyn Kiriakos from Hawaiian Paradise Coffee. Read on to find out what they told me.
You may also like our article on changing your business’ coffee strategy after Covid-19.
Why has airline coffee historically not been of high quality?
When it comes to coffee on commercial aeroplanes, function has historically been more of a priority than taste.
Ben Styche is the Commercial Director at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. “It’s always played second fiddle to alcoholic beverages and food,” he says. “Sadly, coffee and tea are viewed more functionally, as something hot and caffeinated.”
While cheap, low-quality coffee might be partly to blame for this, there are also other factors at play.
Altitude alters our perception of taste. While a coffee drinker who’s just looking for a warm beverage and a caffeine kick might not mind this, consumers who are looking for a more nuanced, complex cup will find it frustrating.
First and foremost, cabin air decreases our ability to smell. This is of course directly linked to taste. In a plane, tastebud sensitivity can be reduced by up to 30%.
“At 37,000 feet in the air, it’s also harder to identify acidity,” Ben adds. “As well as that, the perception of sweetness collapses and bitterness is accentuated.”
Altitude causes many changes that affect sensory experience, including bloating, increased stress, dehydration, and lower energy levels. Lower temperatures on-board also mean that hot coffee will tend to cool down more quickly than it does on the ground.
Water plays a huge role for high-quality coffee. Coffee and tea served in aircrafts is brewed with unfiltered tap water, so outstanding quality is unlikely.
However, there are other differences. Unlike the water we drink at home, aircraft water is transported from the plant and fed directly into the water tank of the aircraft. It’s therefore likely that water quality (in terms of brewing coffee) might be lower than average tap water, depending on the state of the aircraft’s pipes and tank.
Ben explains that the brewing equipment you have to work with on-board is a challenge. Because of the small cabin space available and safety considerations, options remain limited.
Brewing must rely on a simple coffee and hot water combination – higher-quality equipment is too impractical for planes.
Service is an important added value to consumer experience. However, airline coffee is served by flight attendants, not baristas. The coffee therefore probably won’t have the same attention to detail or tailored customer service as it would in a specialty coffee shop.
Why are airlines now investing in better coffee?
Marilyn Kiriakos-Askari is the Vice President of Hawaiian Paradise Coffee. According to her, airlines are choosing to invest in better coffee to give them leverage over other airlines with competitive pricing.
“When a company has higher brand standards, they will attract a higher-quality consumer, more willing to spend on other items,” she explains. “This helps the airlines make more money in other ways.”
Marilyn considers it a smart move for airlines to consider business travellers. They may opt to pick an airline with a higher ticket cost that provides more benefits, accommodations, and complimentary services because it’s a covered business expense.
Better coffee services on morning flights would be an attractive feature for those customers and provide good return on investment, she says.
Consumer demand for quality and sustainability
The third wave of coffee, social media, and a growing specialty coffee market have all contributed to average coffee consumers being more exposed to better-quality coffee. Naturally, consumer demand for quality coffee has in turn increased.
Consumers and brands are also increasingly aware of the devastating effects of climate change and of the ethical issues in global supply chains.
Brands are being held more accountable, so investing in more sustainable options has become a good way to reach new customers – especially those which belong to younger demographics.
Ben says he’s excited to see this change happening, as quality and sustainability are at the core of the Union brand.
“More and more people are now exposed to higher-quality specialty coffee everyday,” he says. “Coupled with that, consumers are also demanding better traceability, transparency, and sustainability. Higher-quality and ethically-sourced coffee is becoming the norm.”
He does point out, however, that better quality coffee deals with airlines are often exclusive to premium and business class.
Upgrading in-flight coffee: A collaboration
In recent years, new partnerships between airlines and craft coffee brands have started to emerge. In many cases, this has been a way to offer an improved product and put more of a focus on customer experience in airport lounges and on flights.
For Union, the partnership with British Airways began at the London Coffee Festival in 2016. Ben tells me that after chatting with a representative, they got the idea to raise the quality of the airline’s coffee together.
“We had a representative travelling from London to New York to taste the coffee in the air,” he explains. “We wanted to make sure we could offer a good match that would stay sweet and clean in-flight.”
Finding the right fit for coffee on an aeroplane is no easy feat. Grind size, roast profile, and brewing method all need to work together to produce the best outcome in a challenging environment.
Ben tells me that his team also trained British Airways’ cabin crew on brewing techniques to guarantee good results.
“The result was so rewarding when we finally got it right,” Ben explains. “The British Airways team told us that it tasted lighter and brighter than anything they’d ever had before.”
Hawaiian Paradise Coffee, meanwhile, signed a five-year contract with Hawaiian Airlines. Marilyn tells me that they started exploring a partnership three years prior.
“It takes a lot of work and time. We worked together on creating the right coffee offering for their flight,” she explains. “We explored brewing different in-flight options until we found the right fit. We are a craft brand that creates custom profiles, which was what they were looking for.”
Promoting local brands
In some cases, these partnerships can represent a push to support local brands, giving customers a taste of the country behind the airline.
Solomon Tadele is Coffee Manager of Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union’s roasted coffee brand, OneKoo.
He tells me they have signed a memorandum of understanding to work with Ethiopian Airlines as suppliers of green and roasted coffee. The purpose of the partnership, he says, is to promote good-quality Ethiopian coffee on Ethiopian flights. As the birthplace of coffee, he explains that it makes sense to market their expertise.
Marilyn agrees, and explains that passengers even sometimes expect a Hawaiian coffee blend as part of the Hawaiian experience.
“Being the only state that grows coffee makes us unique,” she says. “Hawaii is also an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a significant time difference for most travellers, so coffee helps to energise people while they fly, and can even help them adapt to the timezone change.”
As for Union, Ben explains that a roastery unit near the British Airways lounge even becomes part of the partnership’s selling point.
“For British Airways to be able to say that this coffee is roasted 25 miles from the lounge where passengers are is a great added bonus,” he explains.
Is better coffee on flights going to become the norm?
So with the C price volatile, inflation on the rise, and other supply chain issues, is investment in better and more expensive coffee on aircrafts just a passing trend?
Marilyn agrees that the future is uncertain. However, she believes that most coffee consumers view coffee as a necessity, and for many, good coffee is a small luxury they cannot do without.
“It’s hard to tell how the prices now will affect sales in the future. Good coffee on flights may or may not be a passing trend,” she says. “But looking at its evolution through different time periods and cultures, I do feel that good coffee is here to stay.”
Ben agrees, and says he thinks consumers will complain if quality starts to decline.
“Those who continue to invest in quality will win out in the end. Better quality coffee that is sustainably sourced is more the norm now than it has ever been,” he says.
According to Ben, the next innovation in years to come will be better brewing equipment and a wider range of milk options in aircraft.
Solomon is hopeful. He sees a demand for fine, traceable, single origin coffees that he says shows no sign of slowing down. He does, however, admit that in Ethiopia, airlines can be hesitant to invest in more expensive coffee options because of a knowledge gap.
“We are one of the best quality Ethiopian arabica coffee suppliers out there, with more than eight international sustainability certificates in green coffee,” he explains. “However, many Ethiopians often don’t recognise this quality differentiation, or its value. I believe this will change soon though.”
It’s clear that airlines around the world are actively exploring new partnerships for better coffee. And while in-flight coffee may never taste quite as amazing as it does on the ground, serving quality coffee from roasters who know what they’re doing is a step in the right direction.
For the coffee brands, this trend can mark a great opportunity to gain more exposure by reaching international crowds. Whether or not this is a development that is here to stay, however, does remain to be seen.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how super-automatic espresso machines are evolving.
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