When Pamela Polglase worked as a Qantas air hostess in the early 1950s, she looked after just 30 passengers. That was all the plane could carry.
“There would be a crew of ten,” she says. “Three pilots, two engineers, a radio operator and a navigator. And two stewards and me.”
Polglase had to know each passenger’s name, and be able to offer conversation as well as first class service. “The fare was frightful,” says Polglase. “Probably a couple of months’ salary for some, a couple of years for others. When passengers got on board they were wearing fur coats. We didn’t have any riff raff wearing jump suits, or anything like that.”
At meal times, she would drape a crisp linen cloth over each passenger’s table. Next would come the salt and pepper, the knives and forks, and then the wine and the food.
“We tried to make it good,” says Polglase, “but you can’t do much with food that’s cooked in Sydney and eaten in Darwin.” She adds that people’s expectations weren’t so high in those days.
Today, flying is cheaper and faster. But it’s a lot less comfortable than it was – for economy class passengers, at least. Modern aircraft are more like buses, with hundreds of people crammed in together. There’s less leg room, less chance of sitting in an empty row, and more crying babies. But at least the food and wine is better, because airlines have learnt to choose food and wines that compensate for the way taste changes at altitude.
“There are two effects on board an aircraft,” explains Professor Peter Jones, from the University of Surrey. “Low humidity, which affects our ability to smell and low pressure, which affects how the taste buds operate.”
Jones, author of Flight Catering (2004), says that we can lose the use of up to 40 percent of our taste at altitude, making food tasteless. Some airlines go to great lengths to create airline food that can please the most stressed taste buds. The leader in this is Singapore Airlines, who built a Simulated Aircraft Cabin at Singapore airport in 2001, especially to test food. Staff are sealed into the fake cabin, which simulates take-off and landing conditions. Once the cabin is fully pressurised, a series of meals are served, so the staff can judge how they will taste in the air.
While other carriers don’t go this far, nearly all employ top chefs to create their food. Asian and Indian-inspired meals have become popular choices for in-flight dining, because their spiciness mean they taste better than other foods at altitude.
Wine, of course, can’t be seasoned. Not only that, but dry cabin air makes acids and tannins more noticeable. This means that wines served in the air need to offer full aromas and flavours, and be softer and more balanced. This is good news for Australia, because New World wines fit this profile.
“A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc might be light on the palate, but the intensity of the flavours work well,” says Peter Nixson, the wine and beverage development manager for British Airways, “and it’s the same with a well balanced Australian chardonnay. Aussie wines are big for us nowadays.”
British Airways now buy 67,500 cases of Australian wine a year, and the number is growing every year, as Nixson explained when he came to Australia recently to talk about the airline’s approach to wine. It’s clear that Nixson is proud of the wines that his airline serves – but he’s also honest that it wasn’t always that way.
“Late in 1986 BA entered the first ever Business Traveller magazine Airline Wine of the Year competition,” he says. “Out of 16 competitors we came sixteenth – our chairman, Sir John King, was not amused.”
When Nixson took over his current role, he found that British Airways had no wine policy. He took it upon himself to inspect the airline’s 65 wine storage facilities.
“You should have seen the faces of the staff at Bahrain the day I told them to throw away 54 cases of quarter bottles of Champagne,” he says. “The stuff had been there nearly three years and was completely flat and brown.”
According to Nixson, wine consumption on British Airways has doubled in the past ten years. The other big change is that people are now aware of the problems of dehydration, so British Airways go through more than a million cases of mineral water a year; yet once upon a time nobody asked for water. Nixson says it’s a long way from “three cocktails before lunch and a large glass of port afterwards”.
These days Nixson works with wine journalist Jancis Robinson MW to choose the wines, and they take their pick from the major wine regions of the world.
Qantas, on the other hand, pride themselves on being a champion for the Australian wine industry. Wine giant Len Evans chose the wines for Qantas by himself for more than 40 years. In 2004, Qantas appointed a panel of luminaries to choose the wines, consisting of Vanya Cullen, Steve Pannell and Tom Carson, chaired by Evans.
“Qantas have made a wonderful contribution to Australian wine,” says Evans.
You can’t doubt their commitment. When asked for a full list of the wines they carry, their Wine and Beverage Manager (also called Peter Nixon, coincidentally enough), stayed up until 1.30am to compile it. Eventually he had to give up and get some sleep. The wines which are listed here are only a fraction of what Qantas offers, because the final list runs to more than five pages and encompasses nearly every Australian wine region and style.
“Semillon is out of fashion,” says Nixon, “but we represent it because it’s a classic Australian wine style.”
It’s on the international runs where Qantas show what they can do. On many domestic routes, however, Qantas now charge economy class passengers $6.00 for a half bottle of mass market wine; you’ll only see the good stuff if there’s a problem. On a recent flight to Perth, I couldn’t watch the movie, because they’d run out of earphones. It was a trivial enough problem, yet one of the staff, Barbara, apologised with a very fine Victorian red. I’d happily forgo another screening of Bridget Jones for another such bottle.
Peter Nixon acknowledges that the domestic system needs a revamp, and he says it’s on its way. He vigorously defends Qantas’ domestic wine policy, saying: “ I would doubt there was a domestic carrier in the world who featured wines of this calibre.”
He adds that Qantas actively promotes Australian wine because customers want it. “Australians are most patriotic in their expectation and overseas travellers want the opportunity to experience Australian wine,” he says. “Despite this restraint Qantas regularly comes in the top echelon at the International wine awards against premium carriers featuring a ‘global offering’ – perhaps the result of our efforts to identify the finest wine styles Australia can produce and the strength of our relationships with iconic local producers.”
It’s true that airline service is not what it once was, but what we’ve lost in leg room, we’ve made up for in speed. And the food and wine have changed for the better, at least on international flights. Pamela Polglase says she wouldn’t return to the old days, no matter how luxurious they were. “It was too expensive,” she says.
This article appeared in Wine Selector magazine. How ironic that this article opens with a look back at the ‘good old days’ , because it turns out the good old days were when this article was being written – before Qantas sacked their panel!