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How Air France Elevated the Pleasure of Dining at 30,000 Feet

Celebrating 90 Years of Air France In-Flight Cuisine
Xavier Ronze, the maestro behind costume design at the Paris Opera Ballet, celebrates Air France’s 90 years of refined in-flight dining. Air France commissioned Ronze to craft a special collection of five iconic dresses representing different aspects of the airline’s style and design history. Image: Air France

The Early Beverage and Sandwich Days

Air France, as a champion of French gastronomy and culture, strives to provide its passengers with an exceptional dining experience both on the ground and in the air. In-flight meals were simple during the early days of aviation, comprising sandwiches and beverages, and served without regard for turbulence.

1927: The Birth of In-Flight Dining

In-flight dining evolved when Air Union, a founding company of Air France, introduced a gourmet meal service on the Paris-London route in 1927. This pioneering initiative featured a luxurious seven-course meal. The renowned Compagnie internationale des wagons-lits prepared the menu of lobster, Bresse chicken, and glace plombières ice cream.

This successful initiative gave the airline the impetus to introduce the first flying restaurant – the Golden Ray. A steward in livery served twelve passengers a seven-course feast on refined tableware accompanied by the finest wines. Despite its initial success, the costly nature of the service led to its discontinuation. But fine dining had made its way into the aircraft cabin.

1933-1939: Back to Sandwiches and Beverages Onboard

From 1933 to 1939, Air France offered limited in-flight service on select flights to destinations like London or Nice. The service mainly consisted of barmen bringing sandwiches, hot water for tea and coffee, and a bottle of cognac on board the plane. However, after the war, flights became longer and covered greater distances. Catering became a more significant aspect of the in-flight experience.

Late 1940s and 1950s: Air France Prioritizes In-Flight Cuisine

Air France: The «Parisien spécial» service launched in 1953.
Air France: The «Parisien spécial» service launched in 1953.

In the late 1940s, Air France introduced elegant in-flight cuisine. Table service included white-lacquered chests containing individual meal trays and Baccarat tableware, Limoges porcelain, and Christofle silverware. In 1947, the menu included rabbit terrine, quiche Lorraine, duck à l’orange, artichoke Florentine, cheese, biscuits, and fruit. They were all presented, served, and enjoyed on refined tableware crafted by prestigious French designers.

Air France then set up its own kitchens at Orly. The airline recruited renowned and experienced chefs from prestigious restaurants, including Marcel Chémery (Prunier, Ledoyen) and Roger Guérard (La Grande Taverne).

The airline worked with talented chefs accustomed to catering for ocean liners (Normandie, Lafayette). It also recruited stewards with hotel management training from establishments like Georges V or the Negresco. Dishes were made to measure, ensuring the products’ quality was preserved in pressurized flight conditions. The crew loaded the meals into containers and then reheated them on board in small kitchens. The menu changed daily and adapted to customers’ wishes or special requirements.

Intending to showcase the art de vivre, Air France launched the “Parisien special” service in 1953. It introduced Limoges porcelain crockery manufactured by Bernardaud and Haviland, Saint-Louis and Baccarat crystal glasses, and Christofle silver flatware. The menu comprised foie gras topped with truffle, trout with tarragon, fillet of sole, a roast, and a feuille d’automne ice-cream dessert.

1960s: Jet Age Dining on Air France Boeing 707

This refined dining experience contributed to Air France’s success. The company’s ambition was now to promote the French art de vivre. In 1961, the airline served thirty-five regional French dishes to passengers aboard the Boeing 707. Independent oenologists selected the wines. At that time, Air France served an average of twenty thousand meals daily. The company continued to offer refined cuisine while adapting to the exponential growth of air travel, revolutionized by the advent of jets.

Introduction of First-Class Jean Picart Le Doux Tableware

For the first time, original tableware designed by Jean Picart Le Doux, used from 1966 to 2000, is up for sale. Priced at 150 euros, all profits are pledged to the Air France Foundation.
For the first time, original tableware designed by Jean Picart Le Doux, used from 1966 to 2000, is up for sale. Priced at 150 euros, all profits are pledged to the Air France Foundation.

As air travel expanded, Air France continued to refine its dining experience. In 1966, the company commissioned artist Jean Picart Le Doux to redesign the first-class tableware, incorporating the winged seahorse emblem.

1970s: Air France Perfects Meals for Super Jumbo Flights

Air France meal service on board the Boeing 747. Image: Air France
Air France meal service on board the Boeing 747. Image: Air France

On board the Boeing 747, the airline served more than four hundred people. To shorten service times, the airline introduced meal trays. However, Air France didn’t compromise on quality. In 1971, the company created its own airline catering subsidiary, Servair, to develop the new meal tray concept. As early as 1973, Servair enlisted the first “signature” chefs. It teamed up with ten prestigious names in French catering, including Paul Bocuse, Gaston Lenôtre, and Pierre Troigros. This began an ongoing collaboration with France’s most renowned Michelin-starred chefs. During this period, designer Pierre Gautier-Delaye created the “Le Club” tableware for the Business cabin on board the Super Jumbo.

Refined Dining at Speed: The Concorde Menu

Air France Concorde. Image: Air France
Air France Concorde. Image: Air France

From its inaugural flight in 1976, the Concorde stood out for its excellence. The service reflected the ambitions of the supersonic, with champagne and fresh Périgord truffle pastries by Lenôtre a classic choice. The dining experience reached new heights. First, Raymond Loewy designed the supersonic’s interior and the pristine, sleek tableware for the supersonic aircraft. Then, in 1994, the airline asked French designer Andrée Putman to modernize the supersonic’s furnishings and tableware. The result was a white porcelain service with a thin blue border. It featured an elegant design for every item, from the appetizer dish to the coffee set.

Modern-Day Elevated Dining on Air France Flights

Air France La Première service, 2023.
Air France La Première service, 2023.

Regional specialties made a comeback in the airline’s menu in 1996. Air France continues to highlight the diverse produce of different French regions. The airline invites chefs to create regional dishes that change every three months.

Today, Air France serves approximately 55 million meals annually. The airline serves 100% French meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, and sustainable fish from its Paris departures. Passengers can also indulge in fresh, local, and seasonal products, and a vegetarian option is available for every flight.

Air France has partnered with 17 esteemed chefs to promote fine French cuisine. Their menus feature aboard La Première and Business cabins, airport lounges, and selected international departures from 2023. The tableware for these cabins, designed by Jean-Marie Massaud, embodies the essence of flight with its graceful shapes and curves. In Economy and Premium Economy cabins, the tableware by Eugeni Quittlet is eco-friendly.

To complement the dining experience, Air France offers an exceptional selection of wines and champagnes. The selection is curated by Paolo Basso, who was named the world’s best sommelier in 2013. Air France is proud to be the only airline that serves champagne in all international long-haul cabins. We’ll toast to that!

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