Special Report: BA celebrates 85 years of in-flight service

1 May 2012 by ScottCarey7

To celebrate 85 years of in-flight catering, British Airways demonstrated what it’s like to be a member of cabin crew in First, by putting Business Traveller to work.

In 1927, Imperial Airways, from which BA was born, served beef tea, sandwiches and “four gills of whisky” to its first class customers. These days, those in the elite cabin can look forward to dishes such as fillet steak prepared in convection ovens and umami-rich foods courtesy of Heston Blumenthal’s positive influence.

In July, those in First can try an Olympic-inspired menu (see online news March 14), with dishes like rillettes of mackerel on a pickled cucumber carpaccio. But for the cabin crew responsible for serving it, looking after passengers in the top tier cabin requires serious training.

On the menu at BA’s Waterside headquarters, where my initiation to in-flight catering took place, was a surf  ‘n’ turf of beef fillet and langoustine with pont-neuf potatoes. And serving it that day, myself and several fellow journalists, under the guidance of two members of British Airways crew, Adrien Yu and Anne Marie Brazendale.

The first lesson we had to remember was that airlines are not just competing with each other anymore – the crew at BA, and the chefs behind the food they serve, are placing themselves alongside five-star hotels and high-end restaurants. Presentation is, therefore, key.

Teamed in pairs, we were instructed to deliver every item individually to the passenger in precise order or, if a couple are dining together, simultaneously. Almost all of us failed here, with items placed in the wrong order, position or forgotten entirely.  

We fumbled our way through the wine service, forgetting the names of vintages and leaving grubby fingerprints on glasses. The crew have a mini-sommelier tutorial during training, so they know their Pouilly-Fuissé from their Pouilly-Fumé – our taste buds, it turned out, were not quite so refined.

And it’s not just about presentation. We were told crew need to remember every passenger name, how they prefer to be addressed, and their food and wine preferences. They also need to know where all the food and drink is sourced, in case they are asked.

“Tailor the experience to the individual,” said Brazendale, “the level of formality or informality should match their needs.” It’s amazing how easy it is to forget to even to look someone in the eye when serving them – focusing on getting the presentation just right had us entirely ignoring the passenger at times.

Among our other duties was folding a jacket correctly for storage, turndown service and serving a proper English afternoon tea – by this point we had admitted defeat and comforted ourselves with a few freshly baked scones slathered in clotted cream.

The resounding message from our patient teachers? Good try, but don’t give up the day job.

For more information visit

Report by Liat Clark

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