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Even in the mass travel age, airline catering is still seen as a differentiating factor.
The trick for carriers is to maintain their distinctive approach to in-flight meals, while maintaining a hands-off approach to the logistics of cooking thousands of meals a day and delivering them to planes.
In the early days of airline catering, it was an in-house activity for most carriers – at least at their home base. However, operating an airline and running a catering business are quite different and many airlines prefer to focus on their core activity and outsource the catering.
As Catherine Nugent, global director for communications at Switzerland-headquartered international operator Gate Gourmet, says, airline catering requires a lot of specialised expertise, involves complex logistics and becomes more efficient with scale, all of which works in favour of contracting out.
Airlines will work with their own catering company wherever possible but use external caterers in locations where they do not have a presence.
The early in-house departments have evolved into separate catering companies – for example Lufthansa established LSG, Air France set up Servair and Singapore Airlines started SATS. Nowadays, most of the airline caterers are independent companies. They might still belong to an airline group, as LSG belongs to the Lufthansa Group, but they serve many carriers.
Different airlines expect their catering service providers to support them in different ways, but the basis is always reliable on-time provisioning of aircraft. Nugent considers: “Many airlines also value the support of our chefs in helping them develop delightful menus for their passengers that reinforce their brand. Additionally, some airline customers look to their catering company to help them create and manage retail-onboard programmes for duty-free or food and beverage items.”
As airlines increasingly look for ways to generate ancillary revenue, “many of them show great interest in new solutions and innovative products such as pre-order systems or exclusive brand co-operations.” She adds that a catering company with a global reach can create economies of scale for its customers while ensuring a consistent product and global quality standards across its network.
When it comes to in-flight catering, cost is only one factor, Nugent continues. Many airlines take pride in translating their brand identity into corresponding meal options. This ranges from dishes developed together with celebrity chefs for premium airlines, to national cuisines with a modern twist for flagship carriers, to retail-onboard options for low-cost airlines.
Divisional senior vice president of dnata’s catering division, Robin Padgett, also says that cost is no longer the overriding consideration. “Pleasingly, the focus on quality and breadth of expertise has returned to the forefront for airlines.
“As they look to drive ancillary revenue, airlines expect caterers to not only deliver an impeccable culinary experience but also bring strong retailing expertise to the table – from product development and design, to branding, marketing and reporting. What was a niche set of skills five years ago is now a must-have to compete.
“Cost will always be a strong factor, but we’re seeing a focus on quality from our long-term customers and strong loyalty to our business, based on this.”
Padgett says that as airlines adopt buy-onboard strategies, caterers need to help them present the right product to their passengers at the right time, ensure multiple paths to purchase and then follow up with the consumer and utilise data to improve conversion and satisfaction. “Retailing in the air needs to be as smart as on the ground,” he sums up, adding: “Design as well is imperative and product quality is key – including being in line with consumer trends and preferences.”
Safety is always another major concern for airline catering providers, in terms of both operations on the ground and the food itself inside the cabin. In addition to two existing initiatives focusing on employee safety and ramp safety, Gategroup is working towards a global ramp safety standard. A single standard avoids the need for customer-specific requirements as well as reducing complexity and resultant human error.
The aim is to have consistent procedures in all regions and stations that meet or exceed regulatory agency, customer and airport authority safety management system requirements.
Food safety must not be forgotten, either. Gategroup says it operates under the most stringent health and safety regulations in the food service industry and applies the highest possible standards, going well beyond the requirements set by customers and authorities. Its food safety experts keep up to date with the latest legislation from across the globe and the company applies Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) globally. Facilities are regularly audited with unannounced inspections by government authorities, airline customers or Gate Gourmet’s own health and safety experts, and product samples are sent regularly to independent laboratories for testing.
Unique brand identities
In-flight catering is an important part of the passenger experience and one of the few remaining differentiating factors for airlines. Food contributes greatly to the brand identity of an airline and most Gate Gourmet airline customers prefer to keep control over this, says Nugent.
Airline alliances typically do not extend to catering arrangements and even carriers belonging to the same group sometimes work with different catering companies, she points out.
At dnata, Padgett adds that even in an age of airline alliances, airlines still see catering as a differentiating factor. “Airlines principally want to present their brand in the food, and make the customer experience and product unique to them. While alliance or partnership arrangements can provide some economies of scale, they’re not the norm.”
Nugent says that while retail-onboard models (where catering is an optional, paid-for extra) are becoming more popular on short-haul flights and with low-cost carriers, airlines still strive to differentiate their product through the quality of the culinary offering for passengers in the premium classes.
There are regional differences too. In the US, airlines are beginning to reintroduce complementary meals on domestic routes after an absence of many years. Nowadays, passengers more and more often order special meals due to dietary, religious or health reasons, and airlines increasingly offer the possibility to upgrade meal options by pre-ordering.
Padgett confirms that in the US some airlines are returning to or increasing their existing complementary service, while in Europe and other parts of the world the movement to a ‘consumer-pays’ model continues in the economy cabin.
He adds: “Business class and first class are still very much complementary, but you may see an element of user-pays come into these classes too as airlines look across the board for additional revenue opportunities.”
The in-flight catering industry has probably seen more change in the last five years than in the previous 20, Nugent adds. “Passengers are more discerning and are looking for choice, quality and value. Whilst the day-to-day operations do not change that much, the way in which we interact with the passenger can be very different: retail-onboard for instance requires a complex process to provide the correct number of meals based on forecast data. It is also more time consuming for cabin crew to take orders, distribute items and process payment. This is why retail-onboard processes need to be designed to be as simple and easy to handle as possible.”
This is just one example of how the airline catering industry is changing. Nugent concludes: “As an industry leader, Gategroup can never stand still. We are always looking for new developments such as pre-order, business intelligence or culinary trends and smarter ways of working to ensure that we balance our operational excellence with our innovation.”
Kerstin Lau, director of corporate communications at LSG Group, says that while some airlines are just looking for a fulfilment centre for their catering, others are looking for a partner who is an expert in onboard service and who can develop innovative and attractive concepts. “Airline catering has become much more dynamic, diverse and passenger-oriented than ever before,” Lau comments.
Although more passengers are flying, the weakening demand for classic catering has led to overcapacity in many parts of the world. This is not only due to the recent shift to buy-onboard, but is a trend that started about 10 years ago when airlines began to switch to return/back catering, meaning that they load enough catering on their planes for several trips, but only at their bigger or hub destinations.
Lau comments: “Fifteen years ago airline catering was a quite homogenous business with one business model. Today airlines around the globe are applying a variety of business models for themselves and accordingly they are introducing specific, and always customised, onboard service concepts. Our business model has become much more complex.”
Nowadays, a full-service airline caterer needs to provide a broad product portfolio – ranging from fresh cooking (including haute cuisine) to producing meals at the best available cost (including frozen products and meal boxes) and onboard retail. “So the skill set covers the product development for all areas but then ranges from the actual cooking via doing the logistics up to being a retailer.”
Airline caterers nowadays often need to fulfil several different tasks for one customer, including hybrid models for airlines offering a combination of different services onboard. They need to be flexible, manage the complexity and focus on efficient logistics as well as on IT solutions, says Lau.
All these developments, as well as excess catering capacity and competition between airlines, are generating considerable price and competitive pressure.
The most significant trend for Lau is the increasing gap between the service concepts in first and business class and those in coach or charter class. In the premium cabin, the expectation for higher-quality, innovative and attractive meal options has certainly increased, whereas in coach and charter, price remains king.
This is also the reason why many airlines have switched to buy-onboard models or eliminated their (complementary) onboard services. More and more airlines also offer pre-ordering of meals.
Lau adds: “We can’t predict what may happen in the future, or speak on behalf of any airline. But we can say that LSG Group’s goal is to help our customers – the airlines – provide onboard service options which complement the airlines’ business model and are appreciated by the passengers.”
This is confirmed by Padgett, who adds: “These days airlines tend to focus on what they do best and let experienced caterers manage the food, beverage and retailing onboard. It comes back to the need to think and deliver more than a traditional caterer, and airlines aren’t usually equipped to deliver all of that internally.”
All airline caterers face operational challenges, says LSG. Quite apart from the passenger’s personal taste, not every food item is suitable for an aircraft cabin; due to hygiene standards raw meat and fish are very sensitive, for example.
Some food items don’t fly well due to the need to reheat onboard – steaks or other fried dishes, for instance. On the other hand, pasta and rice dishes, cooked vegetables, fish and meat as well as all cold dishes are very suitable.
Meals must also be compact enough to fit into flight trolleys and galleys.
But the airline itself also remains a big factor in whether the passenger gets an enjoyable in-flight experience.
Lau concludes: “We can only control the process until the food is loaded into the galley. Certainly we do give a briefing to the respective airline crew on how to further prepare and serve the dishes. However, we are not at all in control after the food/drinks have been delivered onto the aircraft.”