In the era of COVID-19, catering security and food service are going through a period of review to consider best practices going forward. There is a general feeling of right-sizing, re-scaling, and renewal of the food to be served. The crisis brings opportunities to cut costs, reformulate food options, and reshape expectations of the onboard catering experience. Overarching all is the necessity to enhance hygiene protocols for food and beverage handling while securing the cabin environment as airlines attempt to come back online. Chere Dannettel explores the situation.

Until the black swan event that is COVID-19, the airline catering market value was projected to reach £17.2 billion by 2025 due to an unprecedented rise in air passenger traffic. New trends and higher expectations of foodservice, in general, by an ‘on-demand’ travelling public were pushing new boundaries and breaking old habits. Simplified, high-quality meals, upgraded beverage choices, Wi-Fi access, and onboard entertainment – who could ask for more? Inflight service passenger satisfaction surveys continually ranked ‘food and beverages’ at the top of the list on par with ‘in-flight entertainment’. This is largely due to the fact that airlines were looking for new revenue opportunities and employing new strategies to differentiate themselves from the competition.

But then the pandemic happened. Airlines around the world shut down catering services and laid off 70% of their staff. Planes were parked with no estimation as to when they would be returning to full operation. As of April 2020, London’s Heathrow Airport passenger traffic was down 97%. As of July, US airlines carried 73% fewer passengers year-over-year.

What to do with the excess inventory?

The first order of business in any commercial kitchen is “don’t let food go to waste”.

The supply chains for airlines are long and under contract, sometimes arranged years in advance. Airlines had ordered tons of food that had nowhere to go. Airline catering services created new ways to market the excess inventory. Turkish Airlines, El Al, and Garuda Indonesia, among others, offered delivery of airline meals to your home, including the plasticware. Jet Blue offered overstocked dry-good items, like packaged cheese and crackers, nuts, and dried fruit. United offered their overabundance of previously-procured Dutch stroopwafels to the public.

“…Turkish Airlines, El Al, and Garuda Indonesia, among others, offered delivery of airline meals to your home…”

Gate Gourmet facility at IAD
Gate Gourmet facility at IAD

In the United States, the non-profit organisation, Feeding America, has had a long relationship with many airlines. Once the airspace collectively shut down in March, surplus airline food was redirected to over 200 food-banks across the country with their help. Nothing went to waste. Lost jobs and empty grocery store shelves due to hoarding created an increase in food insecurity. Food banks were essential to fill the gap for many in hardship, especially public-facing service industry employees.

Moving forward – changes in customer expectations

Now the paradigm has shifted. Even though airlines are running on reduced staff and downsized schedules, the public is beginning to return to air travel. In the United States, Labor Day weekend travel statistics showed an upward trend. 900,000 passengers were screened by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) over two weekend days. That’s down by half compared to 2019 but more passengers travelled than at any other time since the pandemic began.

Airlines are now deciding what to do regarding traditional inflight meal services. For example, Jill Surdek, American Airlines SVP of Flight Service, recently discussed the future in an open Q&A session with employees:

“We’re not going to come back with full tray services immediately. There’s going to have to be some interim step. And I really think there’s an opportunity to re-think it. When you think about the footprint we have for meal service and how we served, it’s been very similar over the years. And is there a way to bring back something that still has a premium feel but is different and more modern, and is this an opportunity to reset in a way that we might have made more incremental changes before.”

Critics may claim cost-cutting tactics but actually, it is a good opportunity to re-think the traditional airplane meal service. Inflight catering companies are increasingly more automated and more flexible.

Save costs while offering a better onboard food experience

A byproduct of the pandemic is that the consumer has been re-trained at the point of purchase. Take-away trends in online ordering or through mobile apps give customers the ability to view and order meals ahead of time (after reading reviews of course!).

“…the cost of preparing meals for 100 souls on board, whether they purchase or not, seems so outdated…”

Predictability is the goal of any business. The cost of preparing meals for 100 souls on board, whether they purchase or not, seems so outdated. Inflight meals per flight in the past have revolved around estimating potential buyers. Only on the occasional, magic flight has this ever been successful. Invariably, only the first few rows get their preference. In the new era of diet choices such as low carb, no-carb, gluten-free, vegan, etc., passengers are very specific and often inflexible. Those requiring alternative options due to religious or dietary requirements can also benefit from pre-ordering as choices often run out on-board and people become offended. An alternative for passengers may be to buy a meal in the airport after security, but what a missed opportunity for the airlines to expand the brand and keep passengers in their seats and happy.

“…those requiring alternative options due to religious or dietary requirements can also benefit from pre-ordering as choices often run out on-board and people become offended…”

The ability to know your costs and have less waste means potentially more value to the customer and/or more profit to the airline and caterer involved. Would you rather order a Caprese sandwich, rosemary pomme frites, Fuji apple, and a glass of Beaujolais, or be given a generic turkey sandwich in a box? If you control your waste, the cost could be the same.

Meal offered on JetBlue Mint
Meal offered on JetBlue Mint

‘Tasty’ has had its challenges

Food served on an airplane has a few challenges before getting to the passenger tray. First of all, at altitude, the human body chemistry changes a bit. Appetite is suppressed, food tastes bland, aromas can smell strong or different to how they would on the ground. There’s a little science to getting food to taste as it should. Seasoning is a must but preservatives have been overused in the past to guarantee freshness. The consumer has higher expectations now. Quality proteins, well-prepared vegetables, artisanal bread, or other modern grain selections, cheeses, Greek yogurt, seasonal fruits, or even smoothies and protein drinks, can draw a premium. As any restauranteur will tell you, you can charge more for food handled with care and displayed beautifully, and people will line up to dine.

AimAltitude.com ARCA galley design featured in Aircraft Interiors International
AimAltitude.com ARCA galley design featured in Aircraft Interiors International

‘Sterile’ is essential

As the airline industry recovers, the primary concern is the safety of the passengers and crew. Clear protocols and proper training in hygienic customer contact and food service are essential. In many ways, the airline food industry can benefit from this shift even if they feel forced into it. There has been a long desire in the broader food service industry to adopt the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocol developed by NASA, ‘From Farm to Fork.’ Every step of production is controlled in a sterile way to minimise food safety risks. Additionally, in the United States, the US Food and Drug Administration provides guidance on ‘the analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement, and handling, to manufacturing, distribution, and consumption of the finished product’.

As new catering facilities are being built and new galley systems designed, the time to improve sterile conditions and employ new methods is upon us. Potentially airlines could retrofit galleys before parked planes return to service. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is now predicting that air travel will not return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024. That leaves time for planning.

As an example, the new galley design pictured (left) features two collapsible lightweight trolleys, each holding 48 boxes, that are used to serve pre-packed individual boxed meals. Not only is this a more sterile trolley design, it is also safer for the flight crew and passengers. Traditional trolleys weigh over 50 kilograms and are hard to manage inflight as the natural pitch of the airplane is uphill. They are unwieldy during turbulence and have caused many leg injuries in the aisle as the cart is manoeuvred to and from the galley.

The future is contactless

Antimicrobial surfaces are being developed and surface areas are being simplified with the goal of easier cleaning, reducing touchpoints and limiting contact between passengers and crew. A survey published by the Digital Life Index had the following takeaways regarding passenger views on future travel:

travel and safety

A word from Boeing and Airbus

Both Boeing and Airbus have published information about airflow and hygiene on board to allay passengers’ fears while flying. Boeing stated: “All Boeing airplanes have systems already in place to help maintain a healthy cabin environment. Enough filtered and outside air is introduced to fill the cabin volume every two to three minutes. Before air is returned, more than 99.9% of viruses and bacteria are captured by high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters similar to those used in hospitals.”

Boeing's cabin airflow filtration system
Boeing’s cabin airflow filtration system

Airbus also commented: “Today, the outbreak of a global pandemic has brought with it a great deal of concern. We might see changes in the way we will travel for the foreseeable future. Our world may not be the same as it was half a century ago, but aviation will continue to play a key role. During the pandemic, we counted on aviation for delivering vital air cargo services to boost global supply chains, evacuating stranded passengers, and enabling time-critical life-saving emergency and humanitarian response missions.”

Foodie travellers could lead the way

As airlines recover, there will be plenty of room for growth. In fact, food service may be the catalyst to get people flying again. The United States, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region have a combined share of 87.4% of the airline market. All of these markets harbour foodie enthusiasts with ample disposable income and built-in wanderlust.

‘Foodie travel’ has been trending for quite some time. ‘Sight-seers’ have become ‘cuisine-experiencers’ and the more locally produced and environmentally sustainable the better. Excursions to the countryside of Europe in search of a regional appellation product or to experience le terroir in person has been a goal for many. Travellers to Asia seek to experience the street food of Thailand, the night markets of Vietnam, or the hottest food in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. Tourists immerse themselves in the local culture of their travels, and food tops the list.

“…Taiwanese airline, EVA Air, hired Michelin three-star chef, Motokazu Nakamura, to prepare a meal for a 2 hour, 45-minute flight around northeast Taiwan and western Japan, for which willing passengers paid £604…”

New opportunities in branding and growth through food service

A phenomenon is occurring as the seasoned travellers of the world want to be back on a plane going anywhere. Airlines are selling ‘no-destination’ flights as a way to increase cash flow. Some flights never leave the gate while others follow short, circular routes. Packages include hotel and car services to enhance the ‘staycation’ while boosting travel industry partners. Flights that do take off allow pilots to keep their skills and training up to date and aircraft to be maintained. Catering options on the flights are high-end or themed. For instance, Taiwanese airline, EVA Air, hired Michelin three-star chef, Motokazu Nakamura, to prepare a meal for a 2 hour, 45-minute flight around northeast Taiwan and western Japan, for which willing passengers paid £604. Great food is the key.

Industry casualties and opportunities to limit insider threats

As COVID-19 continues to affect the way we live and travel, the airlines have begun downsizing route networks, workforces, and amenities… for now. Controversies in the US and Europe abound involving employees made redundant even though governments paid airlines to keep them employed. Nevertheless, in the future, rehiring of employees will take place and it may be an opportunity for airlines to enhance background checks and adjust protocols to better guard against insider threats.

The industry reset after COVID-19 presents a brief window to establish best practices regarding access to secure areas of the airport, including by catering companies and cleaners. As TSA notes, ”It is important to build security measures and expectations into any service agreements with third-party providers that have physical access to key assets and functions.”

The US Government Accounting Office (GAO) was tasked by the US Congress to review TSA protocols regarding insider threats and the findings were published in February 2020. The GAO “estimated that there were more than 1.8 million aviation workers with unescorted access to security-restricted areas of the nation’s airports. The insider threat — in which an aviation worker uses their access privileges and knowledge of security procedures to exploit vulnerabilities of the civil aviation system and potentially cause harm — is one of TSA’s most pressing concerns”. GAO recommended developing and implementing a strategic plan. The TSA subsequently published the TSA Insider Threat Roadmap for 2020. Its focus: ‘Insider threat is a dynamic problem – the threat landscape is constantly evolving, technology is rapidly shifting, and organizations are changing in response to various pressures. Our collective efforts to address insider threat require agility, with constant evaluation, fresh perspectives, and updated approaches to address current and future risk’. To be effective, the enhanced protocols will include collaboration with international partners.

jet loading

“…more than 1.8 million aviation workers with unescorted access to security-restricted areas of the nation’s airports…”

We are entering a new era in the airline industry. Like the restaurant industry, those who innovate will succeed. Creative solutions could be used by airlines to attract returning customers. Rare opportunities are available to correct flaws in the aviation system, whether it is about safety in the galley, the supply chain, sanitary practices, or airport security. The travelling public is ready to re-engage, but expectations are high regarding inflight cleanliness. At the end of the day, a tasty meal in a sterile setting is always a good experience, preferably at 10,000 metres.

Chere Dannettel

Chere Dannettel is a former US Airways international flight attendant. She holds a Master’s Certification in Economic Statecraft from the Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C. She holds a degree as Chef de Cuisine from the Baltimore International Culinary College with a concentration in Business Management and worked as a private chef in the yachting industry before taking flight.