Crammed into a tiny seat, trapped between two strangers for a long flight, the last thing a wine lover wants is a 187ml plastic bottle of nondescript plonk. Thankfully, airlines are starting to see the benefits of building better wine programs. With the help of wine industry veterans, they're stocking better wines and training their staff to know the difference between Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.
Despite a flurry of mergers, competition remains fierce in the airline industry, and most carriers have trimmed costs. But they need something to lure frequent fliers. "They're travelers, they're foodies, they're high-tech people, they're traveling more and more and are very wine savvy," said Ken Chase, a wine consultant for American Airlines, about the customer base in premium cabins.
For business flyers, the leading factor when buying a ticket is schedule, according to Joshua Lemeshow, an aviation-industry analyst. But after that, customer service is what sets airlines apart. "People want to feel valued," said Lemeshow. "People want to feel comfortable, people want to feel like the company cares about them, rather than piling people onto a plane, shutting the door and going."
For a decade now, many leading airlines have looked to outside wine experts for help. The ranks include well-known sommeliers, wine writers and several Masters of Wine. To varying degrees, these experts help choose the wines and develop training for the flight staff. They also signal the airline's wine focus to vino-savvy fliers.
Choosing wine for a plane is drastically different than for a restaurant. On-board selections are limited, so wine buyers have to essentially guess what the passenger will want to drink. Many airlines select their wines just one to three times a year, depending on the company. Wine consultants and executive teams will hold tastings with hundreds of wines.
Keeping the offerings interesting for regular travelers can prove challenging. Singapore resident Brian Weintraub, who works in finance and typically travels to one or two cities a week for work, knows exactly which Singapore Airlines flight to Hong Kong will be serving a Napa Chardonnay. Paolo Basso, a Swiss sommelier who works for Air France, says he arranges for selections to change every two months. "We have a lot of frequent flyers, so I think we have to do it," he said.
One key criteria for wine choices: Wine tastes different in the sky. "I need a wine that can stand up and get noticed at 35,000 feet," said United Airlines consultant Doug Frost. Because of lower air pressure, subtler wines will taste muted on the palate. The drier cabin air reduces saliva, which can make some attributes taste harsher than on the ground: Tannic reds and high-acidity whites are best avoided.
Airlines also need suppliers who can provide enough quantity at the right level of quality. Delta passengers consumed 233,000 cases last year, and Emirates served a whopping 750,000 cases in that same period. "In economy, we buy lots of 45,000 cases," said Hermann Freidanck, head of food and beverage at Singapore Airlines. "There are not that many suppliers or vintners who have that amount of the same wine available every six months."
Good wine is one thing, but good service is crucial if airlines plan to stand out. "Our customers want to enjoy wine onboard as if they were in a fine dining restaurant. It's not just red, white or rosé," said Joost Heymeijer, senior vice president of catering at Emirates.
A restaurant-level experience requires a staff that is well-trained and sufficiently knowledgeable about the wine selections. All airlines have basic wine-and-food education built into flight attendant general training. But more in-depth training requires trying to reach thousands of employees who are never in the same place at one time.
Wine consultants working with an airline usually put together basic wine guides for the crew, including pronunciation guides and cheat sheets with bullet point information on the wines onboard. But some airlines are going further, either with stricter training for business and first-class stewards, or with voluntary programs offered to any crew member who wants to take their knowledge a step further—and possibly earn more.
Some of the most serious wine training offered by a domestic carrier is Delta's Sky Sommelier program, a 38-module video course based on consultant Andrea Robinson's online course, specifically tailored to Delta staff. There is a quiz after each module as well as a final exam upon completion of the course.
If a crew member receives an overall score of 85 percent or higher on the final exam, they receive the title of Sky Sommelier, along with a pin, reminiscent of education programs for grounded sommeliers. Since the program started two years ago, 1,800 flight attendants have passed the course, with another 1,200 currently studying.
Qantas Airways has a similar approach with its "Sommelier in the Sky" program, with introductory, intermediate and advanced courses, and a final that includes a written paper, wine-service skills test and a blind tasting evaluation. There are currently 300 Sommeliers in the Sky.
One of the most intensive wine-training programs is Singapore Airlines' Air Sommelier program. It takes about half a year to complete. All of the lessons are conducted by the carrier's three wine consultants at the Singapore headquarters. There are now 70 Air Sommeliers. In addition to flight duties, they taste and share their opinions on wines that the consultants are considering as potential offerings for flights.
Will any of this improved wine service make it down the aisle to coach? Unfortunately for economy class, most of the vinous improvements are limited to first and business class so far. That's because for economy cabin customers, the leading factor when buying a ticket is price, according to Lemeshow. But if airlines see a payoff in better wine programs, someday soon you might find something good to sip while wedged into a non-exit row.