In-flight catering is not simply a case of feeding faces: today’s passengers demand a choice of high-quality, delicious, environmentally conscious cuisine, write Megan Ramsay
“The global in-flight catering market is expected to grow at a significant CAGR (compound annual growth rate) in the upcoming period as the scope and its applications are rising enormously across the globe,” according to Woo Kam Weng, CEO at Pos Aviation in Malaysia, which offers ground services including in-flight catering provision.
There are several factors driving this growth. These include an increasing focus on offering culturally diverse food, high demand for healthy choices from the growing number of health-conscious travellers, and technological advances in onboard food ordering.
For instance, passengers on Norwegian’s B787 Dreamliner aircraft can order snacks and drinks directly from the touch screen of the in-flight entertainment system, with all payments being cashless.
However, Woo notes that a growing focus on weight reduction and cost reduction in order to improve fuel consumption may restrain the overall market growth.
For instance, he says airlines are reducing costs by opting for smaller meal portions – but they are also continuing to develop innovative and nutritious meal options.
Japan’s All Nippon Airlines (ANA) is one example. Its in-flight meal planning and development department, alongside chefs both in Japan and overseas, work together to develop new menus.
A spokesperson outlines: “When creating a new menu, we try to create meals that taste delicious after being heated again on the flight, while referring to feedback from customers and cabin attendants and using a variety of ingredients that look colourful. We use external advisors on how to present western food on the plates, as we continue to improve the quality of menu displays and add a ‘trendy’ element.
“We understand cooking Japanese food outside of Japan is difficult in many ways; therefore we focus a lot on improving the meal quality by teaching chefs based at overseas locations,” the ANA spokesperson says.
Another factor to consider is that human taste buds react differently at higher altitudes, losing sensitivity as a result of pressure changes and the dry atmosphere in aircraft cabins. Therefore, recipes must be adapted to ensure a pleasing flavour in the air.
Plus, Woo remarks that working in the in-flight catering industry requires a broad knowledge of mass production, production forecasting, menu design and yield management – as well as culinary skills and creativity.
Variety is the spice of life
Passengers’ food preferences are becoming more diverse. Airlines must work not only to devise menus that satisfy the demand for choice, but also to contrive in-flight service systems that meet passenger expectations, such as more pre-order options.
At ANA: “We invite world-renowned chefs as members of ‘The Connoisseurs’ to extend ANA’s in-flight meals to the world. For the flights departing overseas, we collaborate with famous restaurants and hotels, and we … aim to recreate restaurant quality in terms of taste and appearance.“
Indeed, the airline recently won the SKYTRAX award for its business class onboard catering. One of the deciding factors in its success was its collaboration with renowned chefs for flights departing Germany and Belgium
Describing its approach to other classes of passenger, the spokesperson considers: “The key is to fully personalise the passengers’ flight time in first class. Therefore, there need to be some twists so that first-class passengers can enjoy their in-flight meal on demand. We understand that the needs of passengers for in-flight meals vary greatly depending on the route, and therefore we provide a variety of meals.
“For economy class we prepare a meal that meets the needs of the majority.”
ANA always offers 24 specially designed meals. While most requests used to come from parents needing special meals for their children, recent years have seen an increase in demand for vegetarian meals.
“Although it is not easy to always prepare a wide variety of special meals, we will consider our future developments to fulfil diverse passenger needs,” the ANA spokesperson confirms, adding: “It is vital to provide a specially cooked meal that is safe and delicious.”
The rise in popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets, as well as increasing demand for more sustainable sourcing, is having an impact throughout the airline industry. Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), for example, has expanded its ‘New Nordic by SAS’ concept, which is based on seasonal dishes made from local produce, with the addition of two vegetarian menus.
The new menus, introduced in response to growing interest in plant-based meals, use ingredients of Nordic provenance, such as Vreta yellow peas, Slätte Gård field peas and Gotland lentils. The produce in the New Nordic range comes from small-scale Scandinavian suppliers, and organic ingredients are used wherever possible.
Karl Sandlund, executive vice president commercial at SAS, highlights the airline’s close collaboration with “a handful of producers from across Scandinavia in developing our culinary ideas based on Nordic tradition and provenance”.
Elsewhere, Emirates Airline works closely with numerous suppliers across the markets it serves in order to ensure the ingredients it uses in its in-flight meals are locally sourced where possible.
“We have always looked at suppliers who also share our values,” a spokesperson says.
“Among them is our caterer in Japan, which offers a farm-to-table experience and has established a system to source freshly picked vegetables from local farms, such as the Hokuso Vegetable Farm, that are all within a 1km radius from their facility.
“Our olive oil produce, Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio Cantina in Italy is the first, and currently only, carbon neutral vineyard and olive oil producer in the world. It owns 12,000 olive trees, located in the hills of its estate,” the Emirates spokesperson reveals.
The airline also urges its partners to look for sustainable options for the onboard products they supply. Lakrids liquorice, which Emirates serves in its first class cabins, will soon be packaged in recyclable jars, for instance.
In line with another of today’s prevailing concerns, airline catering is undergoing a shift away from the use of single-use plastics where possible.
Emirates introduced paper drinking straws on its flights in June. It intends to replace plastic swizzle sticks and stirrers with eco-friendly alternatives by the end of the year. It is also looking at expanding the initiative to include food trays, cutlery and crockery, if suitable materials can be found.
An Emirates spokesperson explains: “The material must be sourced in a sustainable manner and the production process should not have a negative impact on the environment.
“We insist that our suppliers conform to ethical and sustainable sourcing and production methods. The material should also be reusable or recyclable after use. For example, we are conscious about the use of bioplastics as there are not many facilities available to dispose of them in a clean and efficient manner.
“Adopting a closed-loop approach towards the sourcing of our in-flight products is a priority for us,” the spokesperson continues.
“We scrutinise the life cycle of the alternative products we are evaluating and are keen to understand the entire process from production, use and end of life. We aim to introduce products that have the least impact on our environment and implement a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ processes when possible.”
For instance, Emirates has been sending large plastic bottles from its flights for recycling at various locations. This diverts an estimated 150,000 plastic bottles (about 3 tonnes) from landfill each month in Dubai alone.
Furthermore, Emirates introduced ecoTHREAD blankets – made from recycled plastic bottles – for its economy class cabins in 2017.
Each blanket is made from 28 recycled plastic bottles. By the end of this year, Emirates will have saved 88 million plastic bottles from landfill through this initiative.
ANA is also currently looking at alternative materials to replace plastic items on its flights. And Iberia has reduced the quantity of plastic loaded onto its aircraft each year by 68.5 tonnes through a swathe of initiatives.
The bulk of the savings stem from the use of paper strips instead of plastic to wrap blankets and duvets, but the airline has also made changes with regard to in-flight catering.
Bamboo swizzle sticks are now in use, cutting plastic by 2.5 tonnes a year, while the use of paper drinking straws has brought Iberia’s annual onboard plastic total down by a further 4 tonnes.
Iberia’s LIFE+Zero Cabin Waste programme, meanwhile, sees 80% of cabin waste, including plastic, recycled.
The airline adds: “Plastic use on the ground has also been reduced dramatically at Iberia’s Premium Lounges in the Adolfo Suárez Madrid Barajas Airport, where returnable glass bottles have replaced cans and plastic containers, and suppliers have been asked to use bulk formats for many goods.
“This has led to a reduction of nearly one million cans and 200,000 plastic containers, or 23.5 tonnes of cans and 6.5 tonnes of plastic every year.”
Pos Aviation, meanwhile, has embarked on using biodegradable materials for some of its food packaging, as part of an ongoing effort to cut plastic waste.
Woo says the company always suggests the use of biodegradable materials to its existing – and potential – in-flight catering customers. It promotes “the three Rs” – reduce, reuse and recycle – across its product range wherever possible, he adds.