United Is Flying High On An Illy Coffee Buzz

One of the common disappointments in air travel is the swill that passes for coffee on most carriers. Cheap no-name brands, unidentifiable blends, and questionable water all contribute to a poor pour. But now java junkies have something to get buzzed about while flying high. Starting this month, all United Airlines flights and United Club airport lounges are serving illy premium coffee, Europe's best brew. 

To keep up with recent improvements made by celebrity chef and mixologist partners for club and cabin food and wine, United realized that it could no longer ignore the one item that's actually made onboard the aircraft: coffee. Years ago, a company merger resulted in their Starbucks contract being replaced with a something called Fresh Brew.

Big mistake.

United decided to make amends by serving the best coffee in the sky. They teamed up with illycaffe — Italy's coffee experts for more than 80 years — to create a new premium blend exclusively for flight service. Illy applied its expertise to blind taste tests of medium, dark, and extra dark roasts of various grind sizes and dose weights. Because cabin pressure and low humidity causes aroma perception to drop, and flying altitude also diminishes taste by 30 percent, illy's team conducted extensive in-flight taste tests, paying close attention to water quality in airplane galleys.

To solve these challenges, illy scientists, engineers, and quality directors didn't just pick the perfect coffee blend, they engineered a new pillow-pack to better cope with higher boiling temperatures, subpar filtration, and variable water sources. And on the factory floor, illy is currently ramping up the installation of a multi-million-dollar new assembly line for the exclusive production of the coffee pods for United galleys.  

To better understand the effort and engineering feats involved, I toured the company headquarters in Trieste, Italy — the long-established world center of coffee culture. While there, I enrolled in a day-long lecture at illy's Universita del Caffe, where 100,000 students have taken extensive training courses to master every aspect related to the economics and science of coffee from seed to cup.   

I learned how illy's distinct flavor comes from a unique blend of the top one percent of Arabica beans, purchased directly from the best growers in Brazil, Central America, India, and Africa. Believing that "Better coffee makes a better world," illy has adopted a strong commitment to sustainability and pioneered the direct-trade model. Their internationally-certified supply chain includes farmers who earn above-market prices in exchange for meeting quality standards.

The illy lecture hall is also a working laboratory where Universita Director Moreno Faina, VP Mark Romero, and Director of Quality David Brussa, a chemist, led the class through a tasting to demonstrate how illy judges nine "note" standards for the balanced illy blend: sweet, bitter, sour, fruity, toast, body, floral, caramel, and chocolate. Six cups of espresso later, I was starting to understand what United knew too well: It's not easy to make the perfect cup of coffee, let alone the 60 million cups of coffee United serves passengers each year.

"Our collaboration with illy is helping to make the world feel a bit smaller and making flying that much more special, simply by way of a perfect cup of coffee," said Jimmy Samartzis, United's Vice President of Food Services and United Clubs. "By serving the world's most well-known premium coffee in our clubs and onboard, we are communicating an experience to our customers and our employees with the quality and care that comes with every cup."