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AirAsia takes inflight meals to new heights

When AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes first started the low-cost carrier, he didn’t think much about offering inflight food, for the simple reason that the airline couldn’t afford it. Plus, Tony always thought that no one ever really enjoyed inflight meals — even on Business Class.

“I fly a lot. Oftentimes, I get food by some French chef or dishes that I don’t actually like and understand,” says Tony with a hearty laugh. “So I scrapped our inflight food contract. I wanted to give AirAsia passengers a choice. If they want food, they need to pay for it. If they don’t, then don’t buy.”

The day after Tony stopped AirAsia’s food contract, one of the cabin crew asked him: “I thought we would be selling food onboard?”

“I totally forgot about it. So we drove to Carrefour. We just bought sandwiches, drinks and other snacks, then loaded them up in the carts,” Tony relates.

And that, folks, is how AirAsia’s inflight food service started.

Of course, the selections have improved since then.

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“AirAsia is the people’s airline. It’s about time we serve food that people know,” Tony says.

We were at the RedQ, an impressive multi-tiered edifice that serves as AirAsia’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the launch of AirAsia’s Santan Food Festival, the largest inflight food-tasting event in Asia, which gathered more than 200 members of the press and key influencers from 16 markets, specifically Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, India, China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

“AirAsia is all about low fares. But low-cost doesn’t mean low-quality,” Tony says. “For our inflight meals, I want to make our food like a restaurant — good value, serving people’s food and every passenger knows the menu.”

At AirAsia, they call it Santan. A Malay term that means coconut milk, santan is a common ingredient in many regional Asian dishes.

“I picked the name Santan (to represent our inflight meal service) because coconuts affect all of us in Southeast Asia. We all use coconut in our food,” Tony explains.

Asian food trip in the sky

There’s an upbeat and dynamic vibe that permeates throughout RedQ during the launch of the Santan Food Festival.

The spacious and open center area — where AirAsia employees conduct short, casual meetings, enjoy a leisurely meal, or chill out during coffee break — was transformed into a food pavilion where various food stations were set up. Each station represented an iconic dish from one of AirAsia’s Southeast Asian markets, giving the food fest a vibrant regional vibe.

It was like embarking on an Asian culinary journey as sampling portions of AirAsia Santan meals were served. Each distinct dish represents the authentic flavors of the region. There’s the popular Uncle Chin’s Chicken rice, which is my personal favorite. This Malaysian version of Hainanese chicken rice is topped with tender slices of roast chicken and served with Uncle Chin’s secret chili-ginger sauce. For only P149 a la carte/P199 combo (with drink), it’s pretty good for an inflight meal.

We spotted AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes at the Philippine booth enjoying his chicken adobo.

“It’s something new to me and I like it,” Tony says after a mouthful.

According to Tony, food is “a great unifying factor across the region.

“What we are doing is bringing the wonderful flavors of ASEAN into Santan to create a unique food experience onboard. The flavor profile and pricing of inflight food has always been a challenge, but we believe that with Santan, we can create the first restaurant brand in the sky that is both delicious and affordable.”

The next part of AirAsia’s journey is to bring local snack players onboard.

“Why are we selling Pringles on the plane when there are so many great local snacks from the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand?” he asks. “AirAsia is for the people, by the people. So why don’t we help the people — farmers and SMEs — who fly with us? We want to give them bigger exposure.”

To enjoy your Santan meal on your next AirAsia flight, passengers are encouraged to pre-book their meals. Guests who pre-book will be assured of meal availability, as well as priority meal service onboard.

“In a plane with 100-plus passengers, you’ll never know what food they will order. And we just can’t keep on guessing. That’s why we encourage everyone to pre-order meals as much as possible. We have 22 percent food wastage right now. And it breaks my heart every time we have to throw away food,” he laments.

Right now, AirAsia serves pad Thai with prawns, Thai green curry, Korean kimchi stir-fried chicken, miso chicken with garlic rice, the South Indian delight nasi kuning manado (rice cooked in turmeric), Malaysia’s nasi lemak, and roti chala with chicken curry on board. And if all these make you hungry, then get ready to fly AirAsia and have an Asian food trip in the sky.

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AirAsia flies to Kuala Lumpur three times daily.

To book a flight and pre-order your meals, visit www.airasia.com.

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