Maybe airlines don’t make the bold, visionary cuisine we imagined [Updated]

Photo: Miguel Candela/SOPA Images (Getty Images)

Update, January 7, 2020: AirAsia might have flown a little too close to the sun with its new restaurant concept. Santan, the airline’s first brick-and-mortar restaurant serving plane food out of a Kuala Lumpur mall, was visited recently by Adam Minter of Bloomberg, and what he has to say about Santan’s food isn’t promising.

Minter points out that opening Santan wasn’t a bad bet for AirAsia Group Berhad, a company that sees the airline industry’s declining profits and is looking to diversify its business with new revenue. They’ll just have to be wise about how they do it—namely, by creating food that customers are just as excited about on the ground as they are inside an airplane that presents zero alternatives. So far, says Minter, they’re failing in that regard.

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“The Nyonya curry laksa had little flavor beyond the chili; Uncle Chin’s chicken rice was salty and greasy; and the chicken satay with peanut sauce was, in my son’s estimation, ‘fuzzy and too cooked.’” Ouch. Beyond this, the prices are higher than what you’d pay for similar entrees at other popular fast-casual spots in Kuala Lumpur, and the menu is a broad mishmash of Asian staples, rather than focused on any interesting regional cuisine that might pique customers’ interest.

The article is worth a read, because AirAsia’s moves to “diversify” their business might soon be replicated by other budget air carriers. “The problem for AirAsia,” Minter says, “is that winning customers in Southeast Asia’s cutthroat restaurant industry will be much harder than winning passengers on budget aircraft.” We and our low expectations for literally any flight hear this all too well. Maybe Chrissy Teigen can help Santan with a rebrand?

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Original story, December 4, 2019: What is it about air travel—the concrete, everyday logistics of it—that captures our imagination and our hearts? Just last month, New Orleans International Airport announced it would be selling a guest pass program for those who just want to bask in the glory of the concourse’s shops and restaurants; now, Malaysia-based airline AirAsia has opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant serving its beloved in-flight menu.

According to CNN, Santan—the quick-service restaurant located in a Kuala Lumpur mall—has identical branding and the same offerings you’d find at 30,000 feet, such as chicken and rice dishes with chili sauce. This is the first location, but the airline plans to expand to as many as 100 other restaurants worldwide over the next five years.

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AirAsia is already the largest low-cost airline in Asia, and these moves on the ground could help make it loom even larger in customers’ minds. American travelers have their own outsized enthusiasm for airline treats, and famous chefs are often tapped to design in-flight menus, so it would make sense if we soon saw the opening of Delta Delicacies or American Way Cafe. But they’d be wise to hold the peanuts.

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Marnie Shure

Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.