March 9, 2021
After five decades of international front cabin flying, I reckon the pinnacle came in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s before real First Class was eclipsed by Business Class on most airlines. I didn’t get to do it often, but I count myself lucky to have occasionally tasted—both figuratively and literally—what was on offer in global First Class during that era. I appreciated the superior services on several levels, including the creativity and art—or the lack thereof—appearing on the wine and food menus presented to me on board.
As I wrote last week, those flights created rich experiences in my memory. Pandemic solitude has given me time to look back and savor those recollections. I’ve poured over the menus initially on the basis of “curb appeal” before cracking the covers. Arguably, well-conceived menu covers should create expectation and anticipation of delicious things inside.
I guess I wasn’t surprised to find that the three major U.S. carriers—Delta, United, and American—didn’t seem to value menu cover art design. With one exception: Delta did produce some artsy work briefly, just before it gutted its international First Class cabins in favor of solely Business Class offerings. Of the big three, United’s menu covers won the most-drab award (so downright ugly that I decided not even to include it). The UA menus were also the flimsiest and smallest, printed on glossy, thin paper and prone to smearing. Just shy of despicable, the pieces seem like a marketing afterthought.
Slightly less dreary came American Airlines menus, festooned with its logo in case I forgot on which airline I was flying (though I appreciated the toucan backdrop), like this example from a Miami-Caracas A330, if I recall correctly:
To be fair, AA, like Delta, at one point suddenly showed a flare for art on its menus, though, sadly, it didn’t last:
Delta came in third from the bottom, in my opinion, showing little creativity, but at least prone to a penchant for color and heavier cardstock. The filigree edge look, though, somehow made me think of the 1960s and 70s, years I recall with gaudy designs in poor taste.
For a brief period, maybe a year or so, Delta upped its menu game with colorful designs that made me want to open and read, like this one:
Back in the day, Northwest had great service in First, too, as this pretty menu exemplifies on my flight between Singapore and Narita:
Canadian Airlines was not to be outdone flying overseas, either, as this highly attractive, Asian-themed menu proclaims from a 1994 flight in First Class on the carrier between Bangkok and Hong Kong:
One of the most elaborate, largest, and heaviest menus came from Varig’s First Class aboard 747s in the early 90s. Note at the time Varig briefly partnered in a code share with Delta, acknowledged by the discreet Delta logo adjacent to the home airline logo at the bottom right:
Another impressively hefty and classy set of menus came from South African Airways in the 80s and early 90s before their decline, like these beauties:
South African Airways tended to vary its menu look more often than most carriers, as this alternate set of First Class bills of fare prove:
The original Swissair (not the reborn Swiss Air) had a holistic view of how to package their First Class services everywhere in the world they flew. Their reputation for elegant and refined First Class was well-deserved, as their beautiful menus hinted:
Back then British Airways was a proud—some groused smug—airline that catered to those who sought the best in comfort and sophisticated forward cabin amenities, including wining and dining. The simple style of these menus implied luxury:
British Airways freshened its menu designs from time to time, but hewed to elegance, like these from BA009 London-Bangkok-Sydney:
Air France from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Beijing in First Class on a then-new 777 presented me with this surprisingly uninspiring menu cover, though what was inside excited my salivary sense. I expected something with more pizzazz from the French:
Even KLM, known for its pragmatic Dutch everyman approach to minimize distinctions of class, had Royal Class, which was roughly equal to First Class without calling it that, and their menus reflected grace:
Trans-Pacific air routes teemed with great First Class choices. Air New Zealand, small though it was, was a gracious host on long-haul flights, with beautiful menus like these between Sydney and Los Angeles:
Hardly any carrier on earth could match the stylish flourishes of Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, with up front menus like this 1994 beauty:
But the fabulous South Korean carrier Asiana gave Cathay a run for its money and made me a loyal customer on unforgettable flights with menus like these between L.A. and Seoul:
Of course Singapore Air was a master in marketing its First Class to Asia and no slouch in sharp end service once on board, either, as this wine menu teases:
Malaysia Air had spectacular First Class service in those days aboard its 747s, though I was careful not to book the airline’s flights that stopped in Tokyo. Those NRT legs catered to Japanese smokers, with Malaysia, I believe I recall, the last carrier to ban on-board cigarette smoking. This dinner menu is enticing, but Malaysia also boasted one of the great pre-flight lounge fine dining experiences at Kuala Lumpur, even better than Virgin Atlantic’s famed Upper Class lounge meals:
Japan Airlines service and trappings have always impressed me with understated panache and polish, most especially in the front cabin. The cover photo on this menu alone created a certain calm ambiance for the long flight to Narita:
Emirates and Qatar are the epitome of great airline service even now with primarily Business Class premium services. Back when every Emirates long-haul had true First Class, the airline killed me with kindness and top-notch meals and wines, even if the menu blatantly bragged on its Dom Perignon Champagne with a crass photo of the bottle. Still, I never go wrong flying in the front cabins of Emirates or Qatar:
If I am honest with myself, I can’t remember a more whimsical—bordering on inane—subject matter post than this one: airline menu art! And yet it was great fun to critique the history of overseas flights in First that once, not so long ago, presented super-fine comestible and libation offerings to sharp end customers. So much glee to write, in fact, that next time I plan to look inside menus and to comment on the imagination and quality of food and drink.