Luvo’s healthy sesame chicken wrap for Delta Air Lines. Image via Delta Air Lines

APEX Insight: Restaurant brands bring a touch of familiarity to dining on board.

Brand association is a powerful force for airlines, but what happens when carriers use outside brands to boost their own popularity? If EVA Air’s partnership with Hello Kitty is any indication, collaborations can work wonders. That’s why airlines across the globe are looking for the right brand partners to cultivate customer loyalty. Nowhere is that more apparent than in airline catering departments.

Delta Air Lines is among the carriers leading the brand integration charge. After extensive testing, the airline concluded that brand recognition of outside products serves to strengthen the in-flight experience, and that’s significantly reflected in its recent catering changes. According to Delta spokesperson Catherine Sirna, the testing proved that “More choices, beloved brands and larger portions matter to our customers.”

“More choices, beloved brands and larger portions matter to our customers.” – Catherine Sirna, Delta Air Lines

That’s why Delta’s premium cabins feature Union Square Hospitality Group meals, its Comfort+ flyers get a Yasso frozen Greek yogurt bar on select flights and health-conscious economy passengers are served meals from Luvo, a brand that prides itself on “wholesome, delicious meals made with real ingredients.” Luvo’s in-flight snacks and meals have been part of Delta’s branded catering strategy since 2014, and now they’ll be offered on select routes as part of the airline’s new complimentary Main Cabin meal program.

Restaurant brands are joining consumer brands in the aircraft cabin, pushing out the decades-long trend in celebrity chef partnerships. In Hong Kong, for example, carriers are luring customers with Michelin-starred restaurants – not chefs – from iconic hotel chains. Cathay Pacific introduced a menu from the Ritz-Carlton’s Tosca back in February, while Hong Kong Airlines aims to bring authentic Cantonese cuisine to the skies with dishes from Hoi King Heen of the InterContinental Grand Stanford. Both airlines are fighting for the valuable traffic out of Hong Kong International Airport, and partnering with big brands only helps to sweeten the pot.

“Bringing familiar brands on board and crafting exclusive in-flight menus are just a few ways airlines have taken an innovative approach to their catering services,” says Jane Bernier-Tran, president of the International Flight Services Association. “Quality food and beverages are key when it comes to customer satisfaction, and airlines and caterers are going the extra mile to ensure a memorable, appetizing experience.”

Ultimately, brand loyalty can never be attributed to a single factor, but giving passengers a taste of what they love on the ground can only help bring them back the next time they book a flight.

“Food Brand Associations” was originally published in the 7.3 August/September issue of APEX Experience magazine.