Airline catering has taken a significant beating with the ongoing waves of travel restrictions. With restrictions now easing, and borders re-opening, experts say it’s time for the industry to re-think its approach to airline foodservice offerings.
Delivering foodservices in transit has become increasingly complicated in a world of rising fuel prices, mounting waste and a growing demand for healthier foods. At the same time, menu trends that were on the rise before COVID-19 have come back after a two-year hiatus, where airlines had to quickly switch to tamper-proof packaged food offerings to minimize handling and contact.
The industry is also looking into newer technologies that modernize menu delivery, from electronic pre-ordering apps and innovations in sustainable packaging to new food platforms that reduce storage requirements and increase shelf life.
Now that the skies are opening again, here’s what some experts are seeing.
Good health on board
According to a ResearchAndMarkets April 2021 report Global In-Flight Catering Services Market 2021-2025, the increasing popularity of gourmet food catering is being seen by some airlines as a competitive differentiator. Key trends cited include the rising prominence of à la carte over standard meals, mini-meals and nutritious snacks for health-conscious airline travellers. It also points to a robust demand for environmentally sustainable food solutions with locally sourced ingredients.
As meal services resume, passengers are turning to more familiar fare, says Stefan Czapalay, owner, Signature Culinary Solutions, menu development and meal manufacturing providers in Toronto. “What is very interesting is that after a disaster of any kind, you see a huge resurgence in comfort food. We spent years trying to sell cheeseburgers on airlines; this year they have sold really well. Ethnic foods are going full bore but also more on the comfort-food side – nothing too exploratory.”
There is also a growing demand for special diets, adding further challenges to the equation. He reports massive increases in requests for gluten free — more than 200 per cent in two years, and a 500-per-cent increase in request for vegan, flexitarian, or vegetarian options. Whatever the choice, passengers want to eat a more balanced meal. “The pendulum is swinging away from formed protein and protein substrates and returning to fresh vegetables, legumes, and grains.”
“There was a time when plant-based options were an afterthought,” says Josh Janow, president, North America, gategroup in Washington, D.C. “Now they’re claiming space at the centre of the plate more and more.”
Robert Volstuben, corporate chef for Optimum Solutions Inc. in Montreal, also sees a growing interest in increasing ratios of vegetable-based products. “We tried to put more on planes before COVID, but it didn’t really work. But now you can give a salad, dessert and a nice vegetarian meal, and people won’t complain they didn’t get their chicken. I am now suggesting to some airlines they go 60 per cent vegetarian.”
With a renewed focus on health, some airlines are even looking to immunity-supporting ingredients such as elderberry, turmeric and hemp and sunflower seeds, he adds. “A lot of that was driven by COVID. Adding these as garnishes is a trend that will become more prevalent.”
One of the newest innovations of note for Volstuben is ambient food. “It doesn’t have to be refrigerated and can have a shelf life of up to two years out of refrigeration. They have become quite trendy in Europe for grocery stores. That can be an advantage for airlines because they can fly all over the world without food getting spoiled.”
COVID-19 has also driven airlines to find out what matters to customers and finding smarter ways to address that, says Janow. To that end, pre-ordering technologies are effective in offering passengers more choices without generating waste, he notes. “Many are testing them to get it right, but it’s not easy. You are constantly having to keep up with time, location, schedule and gate changes. Boarding ratios continue to change. And if a passenger is bumped from a flight, getting the meal to the flight they are on is a complex piece.”
Waste not, want not
Another issue that has leapt to the forefront is sustainable packaging and sourcing. “There is a huge push towards sustainability in our business, whether that be packaging, food miles, or local sourcing of ingredients,” says Thomas Matthey, general manager, Vancouver, dnata Catering & Retail, whose team of 70 catering professionals prepare more than a million meals annually for airline customers.
dnata’s sister company, En Route, supplies packaged items and solutions. Its current focus is on sustainable and recyclable packaging, says Matthey. “However, we also have to remember that waste regulations for our business also drive the best option. For example, there is no point in using recyclable material if the law states the waste has to be incinerated. Instead, we need to look at packaging that has lower emissions when it is burned. Every decision is made after careful consideration.”
Gategroup’s wholly owned subsidiary, deSter, is a Belgium-based provider of sustainable packaging and service ware. “Our goal is to reach 100-per-cent re-usable, compostable and recyclable packaging,” says Janow. “Interest from the airline space is really picking up.”
By Denise Deveau