Airlines are finally serving better coffee above the clouds

Airlines are finally serving better coffee above the clouds

For many travellers, airplane coffee is one of the least enjoyable aspects of a flight: you expect it to be rather terrible, and it frequently meets that expectation.

But savvy airlines are now seeing coffee as another way of lifting the passenger experience – whether through an improved pre-flight brew, fresh Nespresso in the skies or switching to a better blend of java, even if it’s still served filtered.

Air New Zealand switches to organic Kiwi coffee

Following extensive blind tastings with passengers and coffee experts both on the ground and in the sky, Air New Zealand now serves a custom, organic and fairly-traded coffee blend produced by Hummingbird in Christchurch.

The airline isn’t new to innovation with coffee, either: passengers visiting many of its airport lounges – including those in Sydney and Melbourne in Australia – can order a fresh cup just the way they like it using the airline’s smartphone app, which also prompts the passenger to place an order as they enter the lounge.

Processing over 2.8 million coffee order and counting, AirNZ’s app also remembers your usual coffee preference for simple reordering when you next travel: or if you need another caffeine hit before your flight is called for boarding.

Virgin Australia extracts Nespresso in business class

Fly with Virgin Australia aboard its Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 jets and the question when you order your coffee won’t be “milk and sugar?”, it’ll be “espresso, cappuccino or macchiato?”, thanks to an onboard Nespresso machine.

"At last, you'll be able to get a decent coffee on an airplane!" enthusiastic airline CEO John Borghetti told Australian Business Traveller.

"I know it sounds like a small thing, but I can't find anyone who likes airline coffee. Now, the Nespresso coffee here is as good as the one you'll get in your home, and if it's good enough for George Clooney..."

Better yet, flyers can also customise the strength and taste with a choice between Ristretto Intenso for the strongest shot, Espresso Forte for a more balanced blend, or Espresso Decaffeinato: great for later in the afternoon or in the evenings when you’re planning to sleep.

Virgin Australia also offers all-day barista coffee service in most of its Australian airport lounges.

United Airlines pours Italian Illy coffee

While there are no fancy flat whites or lattes to be enjoyed aboard United, the blend used for its filtered coffee – of which the airline pours almost 200,000 cups per day – is now roasted in Italy by Illy, using beans sustainably sourced from Brazil, Central America, India and Africa.

Because travellers lose approximately 30% of their ability to taste at altitude, the airline trialled several coffee suppliers and blends across a variety of flights and aircraft types to select the best all-rounder, particularly when the boiling temperature of water varies depending on the cabin pressure: and the temperature of the water can affect the coffee’s performance.

For instance, aboard United’s Boeing 787 Dreamliners where the cabin pressure is equivalent to 6,000 feet in altitude, water boils at around 93.6°C: whereas on other aircraft like the Boeing 767 and 777 which are pressurised to a higher 8,000 feet, the boiling temperature drops to around 91.6°C.

Compared to its predecessor, some interviewed United passengers describe the new blend as “full-bodied with a nice aroma” and being “strong, but not too strong”.

Chris Chamberlin
Chris Chamberlin is a senior journalist with Australian Business Traveller and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a great latte, a theatre ticket and a glass of wine!


  • elchriss0


    18 Oct, 2017 10:33 am

    Had a cappuccino onboard Aegean J last year and was pleasantly surprised
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  • flyOFTEN


    18 Oct, 2017 02:53 pm

    there are 1000 ways to make bitter coffee taste better. One way is too include a small amount of sugar or sweetener in the coffee, before the customers put there own amount of sugar in the cup. Not sure if bitter coffee is just cheaper or accidentally burnt when roasted or what ?
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  • Graham BLAMEX


    18 Oct, 2017 10:50 am

    Fantastic Nescafe of VA.....
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  • Geoff J Booth


    18 Oct, 2017 12:49 pm

    Austrian Airlines has what they call a Flying Coffee House that serves a range of 10 freshly prepared classic Viennese coffee specialties. The ones I sampled were quite good.
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  • Michael Gibbons


    18 Oct, 2017 01:28 pm

    And In Y, a’s always, you can enjoy a nice cup of depresso...
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  • peteshep


    18 Oct, 2017 02:24 pm

    So why can’t Qantas get rid of the revolting Vittoria coffee in both the lounges and inflight?
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  • Dean


    18 Oct, 2017 05:23 pm

    Neil Perry loves Vittoria
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  • sydney mike

    sydney mike

    18 Oct, 2017 03:19 pm

    We flew Aircalin a month or two ago and were shocked at how good the coffee was in business! All these years of horrible qantas coffee... i cant work out why they all cant do a decent brew!
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  • Mike Butler

    Mike Butler

    18 Oct, 2017 03:51 pm

    Yes, we DO stress about our coffee these days, don't we?
    Back in the late Sixties, I spent three years as a Qantas International Flight Steward and if any of you saw how we made coffee in those days, you would be appalled!

    On the venerable Boeing 707's, the coffee was prepared by the Fifth Steward in the Economy section, and by the Third Steward in First Class! No Business Class way back then!

    Coffee preparation consisted of pulling the insulated container of VERY hot water from the wall of the galley, removing the lid, and pouring in as much instant coffee powder as one saw fit! This system applied at both ends of the plane. Across the Pacific, we made it so strong that a spoon would stand up in the cup and a Yank's hair would stand on end!

    I remember vividly a trip to HKG (back in the magic days of Kai Tak and the chequerboard) when we hit severe turbulence near the Philippines. I had just removed that bloody insulated container of hot water to "prepare" the coffee when I found myself on the floor of the galley trying to hold onto something that could have ruined my good looks for life!

    Cabin crew today have it too easy! LOL!

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  • John Hardy


    18 Oct, 2017 03:53 pm

    You can hardly call Nespresso real coffee ....
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  • xtfer


    18 Oct, 2017 03:55 pm

    Virgin's Business Espresso is the best I've had on a plane.

    Singapore does the best regular brewed coffee, IMHO, and IS Illy.

    Delta's is breathtakingly awful and shouldn't really make this list. The coffee on one memorable Delta flight was literally the worst I've ever had. Also, Delta is mostly Starbucks.

    It sounds like I need to try Austrian now, however...
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  • Raymond De La Maza


    20 Oct, 2017 03:48 pm

    As a veteran flier with 40+ years flying around the world, my solution to the "bad coffee" issue is to pre-pack plastic bags with my favorite instant(Nescafe Gold), my own packets of full cream milk, and my own brown sugar....and just ask for hot water.This way I know what I am getting, and if I have to drink instant-even in first!-at least I am drinking my own....Greatly enjoyed the 707 story from the 60's-which I am old enough to remember fondly.
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23 Jul, 2019 09:07 am


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