There is no doubt that providing high-quality in-flight food and drink in all flight classes is of the utmost importance – especially in the digital age, when customers instantly share their experiences, writes Justin Burns
Airline catering is an evolving sector as airlines seek to provide the best experience for passengers and at the same time save costs, cut weight and reduce waste. Carriers are taking various approaches to meet these challenges.
Dutch airline KLM, for example, puts on meals for about 30 million passengers a year through its wholly-owned subsidiary KLM Catering Services, which serves more than 55,000 meals to passengers every day.
The environment is at the heart of the airline’s strategy and it recently carried out a study on the effect of in-flight services on the environment that yielded some interesting points it was not expecting.
KLM in-flight services director of cabin products and service engineering, Martine van Streun, who is responsible for all on-board products and services, says: “To our surprise the impact of waste on the environment and CO2 emissions in an aircraft is far less than the weight we are carrying, so we can actually compensate some waste for weight if we need.”
Reducing the weight from catering services is a huge challenge KLM is facing and it has taken various measures in this regard.
“The biggest change in catering is about reducing the weight to help cut the CO2 footprint of the aircraft,” van Streun says. “It makes sense to not serve a lot of products that we do not use so we are always monitoring what we need and don’t need.
“We continue to lessen the weight and waste especially. KLM has reduced weight by using lighter trolleys, jars with less weight, and have removed newspapers,” she adds.
KLM constantly monitors what it is loading on-board aircraft to optimise what food and drink it needs, and regularly looks at which beverages are being used on each route.
What about waste?
Airline catering waste is an interesting issue as the number of meals served on carriers every day is mind-boggling – one can only wonder at how much is produced, and where it goes.
dnata Catering provides meals for more than 120 airlines and uplifted more than 117 million meals to airline customers last year. Divisional senior vice president, Robin Padgett, says the company looks at waste from several angles – including an environmental perspective.
“We are always going to have waste but we need to be smart with how we deal with it,” he considers. “Along with recycling it, we work to minimise [waste] by better understanding ordering patterns, particularly for packaged products. With the rise of pre-ordering options for food, beverage and duty-free, we’re helping our customers to minimise waste on-board while improving the customer experience,” he explains.
In Padgett’s view, programmes like those that enable passengers to pre-order their food choices before they fly are the most beneficial for tackling waste as they allow airlines to match supply with demand.
“In addition, we ensure we’re providing airlines with sustainable choices – understanding our supply chain and materials we’re offering our customers and their customers,” he adds.
In van Streun’s opinion, the amount of waste per passenger is actually decreasing year-on-year on KLM flights, whereas the share of recyclable waste is increasing.
The airline operates a strict and thorough operation and has 12 different recycling streams, on which the cabin crew and employees from KLM Catering Services collaborate.
But there is another environmental challenge on the horizon for KLM and other European carriers, as the European Commission has outlined plans to ban single-use plastic cutlery and plates on airlines in an attempt to reduce the harmful effect of plastic in the oceans.
Some airline officials think the new policy will bring little environmental benefit – and it is to be noted that some alternatives to plastic, such as bamboo, are slightly heavier – but the directive could come into effect in either 2020 or 2021, forcing a re-think and even a complete change of strategy.
Van Streun says that for KLM, this will prove a challenge, and the airline is now working towards reducing the use of plastic, as are other carriers. Low-cost Irish carrier Ryanair, for example, has already pledged to switch to biodegradable cups, wooden cutlery, and paper packaging on board by 2023.
This could well be something that eventually comes in across the globe. In the US, Alaska Airlines has banned plastic straws and replace single-use, non-recyclable, plastic stir straws and citrus picks with white birch stir sticks and a bamboo alternative for the citrus pick on all flights.
Other US carriers that have moved in that direction include American Airlines and United Airlines.
All about the customer experience
Passenger satisfaction is at the heart of airlines’ strategies. The need to provide the best in-flight catering has never been so important, and it seems sustainability and providing an ‘experience’ is central, along with giving customers as much choice as possible.
Padgett says many airlines a few years ago stopped differentiating their products on-board, but they soon realised this was a mistake.
“If you asked passengers before a flight for three reasons why they booked a ticket, catering would not be on their list, but if you asked them after the flight they would tell you that the on-board experience is the most important and that the dining experience is most important,” he explains.
“You have to have a product that stands up and the catering and service on long-haul flight is particularly important,” he emphasises.
As for KLM, van Streun says that on short-haul flights the carrier is focused on convenience and demand, using sustainable local products, while for longer flights it takes a different approach.
“What we are looking for is nice products at the right time of day,” she goes on. “For European flights we are focused on sustainability and are looking to use products from local suppliers who can tell their own story on board. This includes for products like cheeses, chicken, eggs and bread we get from a bakery.”
As for long-haul operations, the Dutch carrier is aiming to create “enough moments” during flights to surprise passengers through the various products it serves up, which includes a good meal with different choices.
Van Streun says that in-flight catering is a differentiator for passengers, as in today’s world they can easily compare the offering of one airline with others through social media and websites. So, KLM makes an effort to see what competitors are doing and to surprise passengers with new products and meals.
A trend KLM is also seeing is the need for a personalised service and offering on flights as passengers want to be in control before they fly.
For instance: “In business class what we are doing is we are trying to give them some control and choice so it is possible to order any meal at any times in the flight. This is via our ‘Anytime for You Service’. In economy class passengers want more information about what they expect on-board and we are looking at the phases of the flight,” she says.
In-flight retail catering
Another emerging trend, in Padgett’s view, is that the use of retail in-flight catering services will continue to increase, and this presents airlines with an altogether different challenge.
He outlines: “In economy class there is a strong retail move on-board and for the traditional caterer it means a new experience. We already have that and have to have the right retail skills to deliver on. Retailing on-board is very different for airlines, and that’s where we [at dnata Catering] provide understanding and experience from across a broad customer base.”
In Padgett’s opinion, the growth of retail within airline catering services will only grow – and it will not just be confined to short-haul flights. “One thing that interests us is retail on long-haul flights like Norwegian. That is quite exciting and I think more and more airlines will be starting it,” he says.
“On a few airlines I believe it will be an option, especially on some legacy carriers, as it is a way that airlines can price the costs of catering. We call ourselves a caterer, but we are now half-retailers,” he observes. |