Illy’s Master Baristas (and Chemists) Discover the Right Inflight Brew - United Hub
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Illy’s master baristas (and chemists) discover the right inflight brew

By Matt Adams, June 29, 2016

Find out what type of coffee you are in our quiz below.

The name illy, United's new coffee partner, evokes certain images when you hear it. Perhaps you think of a storefront coffee shop on a cobblestone street in a picturesque Italian village. Sidewalk tables with illy's iconic cups — pristine white with a thick, circular handle — sitting atop saucers. Maybe you imagine the dark brown hues of perfectly roasted and brewed coffee, or the caramelized color of steamed milk in a delicious cappuccino.

What you probably don't think of, however, are lab coats and chemists. You see, there's much more to a great cup of coffee than just beans and water — there's science behind taste.

A compound flavor palate

Ernesto Illy, son of illy's founder Francesco Illy, studied as a chemist at the University of Bologna in the 1940s before joining his father's company. When he took the helm in 1956, Ernesto relied on his background in chemistry in his efforts to create the world's best espresso. Ernesto's understanding of the science of taste even led him to help establish the Association Scientifique Internationale pour le Café, an international organization which uses applied scientific practices to develop better tasting coffee.

"Our pedigree is very much based in science, going all the way back to our founder and continuing with our present-day Chairman and President, Andrea Illy, who is Ernesto's son," said illy's Director of Corporate Communications for North America Adam Paige. "The factory employs chemical engineers; pictures of molecules hang on the walls in our New York office. Our scientific heritage carries over into our research and development, our technical teams and our innovation."

There are many flavor notes that contribute to your perception of coffee's taste — bitterness, acidity, sweetness, chocolate, caramel, toast, floral, fruit and a multitude of others are all present. We are born with four primary tastes: sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness. In every cup of coffee and every bite of food, those four work together with our sense of smell to detect flavors. Composed of nine distinct Arabica beans of the highest order from four continents, the illy blend is expertly calibrated to consistently showcase a flavor profile that is balanced and smooth, never bitter.

Taste in the air

But at 35,000 feet, the environment is obviously quite different than on land. "Onboard the aircraft, you're experiencing 8,000 feet of air pressure. This reduces your perception of sweetness and saltiness," illy's Master Barista Giorgio Milos said. "The humidity is also lower (between 5 and 15 percent), so your olfactory system is not working as it normally would. Smell plays a big part in your perception of flavor. These are things that we have to consider when brewing in-flight coffee."

Consider that we lose up to 30 percent of our perception of these flavors at cruising altitude, and you start to understand the challenge of making coffee that customers will enjoy.

To offset those pressure and humidity changes, the Research and Development team at illy spent months studying and testing control factors such as grind size and amount of ground coffee to ensure that we serve a quality cup on United flights.

"When we partnered with United, I thought to myself, 'Finally, I can drink good coffee on a plane!'" Giorgio said. And he's a man who knows good coffee: Giorgio has been a barista with illy for 21 years, and his connection goes back even further. "I'm actually second-generation. My mother worked at illy in Italy for 35 years. Coincidentally, my father was in the milk business. I guess I was destined to do what I do."

One of Illy's workers tracking brewing mechanics

Above and beyond testing

Not only did illy test United's coffee on the ground to optimize flavor, they went above and beyond – literally. Illy conducted inflight tests to observe the way that altitude and the brewing process onboard the aircraft affected the coffee. Led by Mark Romano, illy's Vice President of Education, Quality and Sustainability, teams spent time in our galleys tracking brewing mechanics, water temperature and hardness, brew times and optimal holding and serving temperatures – anything that could potentially influence the taste of the coffee midflight.

After they finished the inflight testing, illy had BA Aerospace, the manufacturer that makes aircraft coffee brewers, send a machine to their factory in Italy so that they could continue to search for brewing processes that achieve optimal quality.

"We knew that the brewing machines in the aircraft have a three- to four-minute brew time, so we worked to make sure that our coffee delivered quality within those consistent parameters," Adam said.

Discoveries, decisions

Illy's Research and Development team discovered that grinding the beans to a stone shape, with ridges as opposed to a flat surface, allowed for maximum water saturation and surface area coverage, leading to a more flavorful brew from our onboard machines.

During in-flight tests with customers, illy and United received great feedback on its darker "Scuro" roast bean. Medium roast beans have a very balanced taste and subtle flavor profile, but darker roasts have a bolder flavor and more noticeable chocolate notes. Since our taste senses are dulled in the air, dark roast beans make up for that lack of flavor perception so that customers aren't left feeling like they've been served a weak cup of coffee.

"Our teams conducted tests in the air with different planes, pillow packs, quantities of coffee and grinds, and the dark roast consistently achieved the best flavor balance," said Mark. "Even with the variables, time and time again our team and United's customers selected that roast as the best during taste tests."

United's Senior Manager of Product Strategy and Implementation Jeff Pelch said, "The quality of illy coffee and the work they've done to maximize the flavor of their product in the air is symbolic of where we're going as a company."

Indeed, our decision to partner with illy is a small but significant step towards putting our customers first in every way. Much like with fine wine and craft beer, customers are savvier than ever about their food and beverage choices. We're pleased to offer them a superb option, and one that will lead to a more enjoyable flying experience. Illy coffee will be onboard United flights starting July 1, 2016.

Think you know what kind of coffee you are? Take the quiz below to find out.


Adjusting to Customer Demand, United Adds New Nonstop Service to Florida

By United Newsroom, August 12, 2020

CHICAGO, Aug. 12, 2020 /PRNewswire/ -- United Airlines today announced plans to add up to 28 daily nonstop flights this winter connecting customers in Boston, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New York/LaGuardia, Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio to four popular Florida destinations. The new, nonstop flights reflect United's continuing strategy to aggressively, and opportunistically manage the impact of COVID-19 by increasing service to destinations where customers most want to fly.

Entertainment for all

By The Hub team, August 04, 2020

Our Marketing Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity team and Bridge, our Business Resource Group (BRG) for people with all abilities, partnered together to test and provide feedback on our award-winning seatback inflight entertainment (IFE) system.

Aptly named "Entertainment for all," our new seatback IFE system offers the an extensive suite of accessibility features, allowing for unassisted use by people of all visual, hearing, mobility and language abilities.

"It's nice to know that I can get on a plane and pick my favorite entertainment to enjoy, just like every customer," said Accessibility Senior Analyst and Developer and Bridge Chief of Staff Ray C., who is blind.

"As a deaf employee, the closed captioning availability on board our aircraft is something I value greatly," added Information Technology Analyst Greg O. "The new IFE further cements United's visibility within the deaf community and elsewhere. It makes me proud to be an employee."

Accessibility features of the new IFE include a text-to-speech option, explore by touch, customizable text size, screen magnification, color correction and inversion modes, and alternative navigation options for those unable to swipe or use a handset. For hearing-impaired and non-English-speaking passengers, customization options provide the ability for customers to be served content and receive inflight notifications based on their preferences and settings —with closed captions, with subtitles or in the language of their choice from the 15 languages supported. Our "Entertainment for all" system won the Crystal Cabin Award in 2019, and recently, the Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl Research and Development Award for Audio Description by the American Council of the Blind.

"This really showed the benefits of partnering with BRGs in helping us improve products and services for our customers and employees," said Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity Senior Manager Corinne S. "Even though we have been recognized with awards for our IFE accessibility features, we are not resting on our laurels but continuing to work towards improving the inflight entertainment experience for all of our customers to ensure entertainment is available for all."

Shaping an inclusive future with Special Olympics

By The Hub team, July 24, 2020

If your travels have taken you through Chicago O'Hare International Airport anytime since October 2019, you may have had a friendly, caring and jovial exchange with Daniel Smrokowski. Daniel is one of four Service Ambassadors thanks to our ongoing partnership with Special Olympics. This inaugural ambassador program aims to provide Special Olympic athletes employment opportunities within our operation, affording them a unique and meaningful career.

Since 2018, our partnership with Special Olympics has become one of United's most cherished relationships, going beyond the events we take part in and volunteer with. While the plane pull competitions, polar plunges, duck derbies and Special Olympics World Games and other events around the world are a big part of our involvement, the heart of this partnership lies with the athletes and individuals supported by Special Olympics. To advocate for their inclusion in every setting is one of our biggest honors, and we take great pride in the role we play in the organization's inclusion revolution.

Aiding in the success of Special Olympics' mission to create continuing opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, throughout the two-year partnership, United has volunteered over 10,500 hours and donated over $1.2 million in travel to the organization. The impact of this partnership is felt at every level, both at Special Olympics and within our own ranks.

"The Inclusion Revolution campaign, led by our athletes, aims to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. United Airlines has joined in our fight for inclusion, empowering our athletes with the skills needed to succeed and opportunities to contribute their abilities as leaders," said Special Olympics International Chairman Tim Shriver. "United Airlines believes that people with intellectual disabilities should be perceived as they really are: independent, world-class athletes, students, employees, neighbors, travelers, and leaders who contribute to make this world a better place."

Our Service Ambassador program is just one of the many ways Special Olympics has impacted not only our employees, but also our customers. "I see every day how our Service Ambassadors connect with our customers the moment they walk into the airport lobby," said Senior Customer Service Supervisor Steve Suchorabski. "They provide a warm, welcoming smile ad assist in any way they can. To see these young adults hold positions that a society once told them they couldn't is truly the most heartwarming part of my job," Steve continued.

"The opportunity to be a part of the United family means everything to me," Daniel said. "I feel so much pride showing up to work in a Special Olympics/United co-branded uniform, working among such a loving and supportive community. The relationship between these two organizations is truly helping to shape my future while letting me use my gifts of communicating and helping others. Hopefully, I can spend my entire career at United," Daniel added.

In honor of Special Olympics' Global Week of Inclusion in July, we're asking our employees, customers and partners to sign a pledge to #ChooseToInclude at jointherevolution.org/pledge.

And be sure to check out Daniel's podcast The Special Chronicles.

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