AirAsia has big ambitions when it comes to in-flight food and drink

You have to give credit where it’s due; though very few would jump at the prospect of airline food – especially when it’s coming from a low-cost carrier – it’d be hard to deny what AirAsia have done with their “Santan” concept. The range they have managed to supply to their passengers across their entire network is impressive to say the least, pulling on various points of call across Asia Pacific (particularly the ASEAN countries) to assemble an on-board menu that’s diverse and offers a wide range of flavour. Most importantly, it pushes away from the poor quality expected of airline food (that isn’t from business or first class), offering a very viable alternative to grabbing a snack before heading to the gate and hoping that will be enough to tide you over for the flight. Just open the menu on one of their flights, the scope (and price range) will likely take you by surprise.

Late last month AirAsia reiterated an ambition to really zone in on the quality of airline food and refine their offerings, doing so by inviting a large number of media and key influencers to – oddly enough – an airline food festival held at their sprawling central office in Kuala Lumpur. Officially dubbed the Santan Food Festival, the showcase event emphasised the airline’s most popular dishes, including the newly introduced Thai Green Curry with chicken and rice, all of which are available on board for very low prices (even lower for those who pre-book the combo meals).

Note: smaller size than what’s served in-flight.

If nothing else, the festival was a chance for AirAsia to proudly and confidently make a statement about their airline food and the quality of the Santan offering. Though one taste of their more western-influenced dishes – like cheese omelette with sausage, which I had on the way over from Sydney to KL – may contradict this confidence, when it comes to Asian dishes the airline is more than justified in stating that they have the best in-flight food across the Asean and Pacific region. There’s also little surprise as to why AirAsia picked up the award for World’s Leading Inflight Service at the World Travel Awards 2016, following their award for Catering Innovation of the Year earlier that year.

While obviously food served on-ground is not entirely representative of food served at over 30,000 feet, I did manage to test the dish pictured above on the flight back from KL. The meal was more or less the same, flavour-rich with fluffy, aromatic rice providing a far superior option to my aforementioned omelette; it was quite possibly the best I’ve had in an economy class.

A big reason for this boost in quality seems to be the company’s commitment to exploring the countries they regularly service in order to expose and elevate local Asean food and drink enterprises. Anyone who has traveled across Asia will agree that there are so many local dishes and drinks that remain largely undiscovered to the masses, many of which are far superior to their big-brand alternatives; AirAsia seem to realise this, and their close work with local farmers and entrepreneurs has allowed the airline to bravely pave a new path for in-flight hospitality.

Team AirAsia at the Santan Food Festival | Supplied.

“The concept of Santan is to promote local food, drink, snacks to a larger audience”, said AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes, speaking of the company’s penchant of discovering small businesses with innovative product and adapting them for in-flight service, exposing them to a network of tens of millions of passengers a year. This is particularly valuable for passengers looking to try local delicacies before they even land at their destination – there aren’t many airlines around that can offer good nasi lemak, mango sticky rice, or even Vietnamese iced coffee.

Alongside Santan sits AirAsia’s “Tea & Co”, another part of the menu that focuses solely on snacks and beverages. It’s here where Fernandes’ biggest hospitality-related ambitions lie. Now that they have refined their food offering, attention has been put on the frequently derided in-flight coffee, which may be taken up more than a few notches in quality by the end of the year thanks to some partnerships with small coffee farms throughout Asia.

Note: smaller sized than what’s served in-flight.

Fernandes, who started really exploring coffee with the help of a small farm in Thailand, announced that the company is working on a special “Asean blend” that should be available before 2017 is over. Not only that but AirAsia are also working with others across the world to develop a machine that can brew and deliver quality coffee in less than a minute. All talk? Maybe, but AirAsia have done enough to earn that benefit of the doubt, and if they can do for their drinks what they’ve done for food then this could be a game changer for affordable travel.

“In line with our digitalisation efforts, we will leverage on data we have from more than 400 million guests carried over the years to create better, more innovative inflight offerings”, continued Tony. “We will implement an electronic point of sales system soon that will make ordering and payment as easy as a restaurant and allow us to better understand what our guests want. We are also exploring the use of green packaging and inflight coffee trolleys to enable us to serve freshly brewed premium coffee onboard, and we will continue working with local Asean enterprises and farmers in developing F&B products”.

Santan Food Festival

A willingness to learn from and engage with the various countries across their extensive route network is clear as AirAsia continue to evolve their on-board experience. Time will tell whether or not they can complete the picture as they continue to discover traditional food and drink across Asia, adapting these for in-flight service, but as it stands the airline has definitely started on an interesting path. If they can pull this ambitious coffee blend off, then their status as one of the most innovative LCC airlines in the world is a given.

For more on AirAsia and to check out their flights click HERE.

The writer flew to Kuala Lumpur as a guest of AirAsia.