The Airline Catering Association was established to represent, promote and defend the common interests of the airline catering industry. Fabio Gamba, Managing Director of the ACA and Airport Services Association joins the PAX Week Views team to provide more information about the role of the association, and the biggest trends impacting its members today.
If you’d like to listen to the audio version of this interview, you can find that episode of PAX Week Views Podcast here.
This interview was conducted prior to the effects of COVID-19. For more recent thoughts from Fabio Gamba, find our new interview with him here.
PWN: Can we start with a bit of background on the Airline Catering Association. How and why was it formed?
FG: It was formed officially in December 2017 by five airline catering providers – Dnata, DO & Co, Gategroup, LSG Group and Newrest – and it was launched as a non-profit organisation for the flight catering industry.
I joined the association as Managing Director in March 2018 – so four months after its creation. Of course, we chose to have it in Brussels, which I believe is good indication of why we decided to create this association, an indication of the original intent of the ‘founding fathers’ – to establish ACA as a trade body to offer, what typically such other trade bodies do, i.e. promotion of the common interests of the industry in a number of matters such as food, health and safety issues, environmental concerns, and so on.
PWV: And, why was it felt the association was needed?
FG: For the most classical of reasons, first and foremost, to ensure that the industry gets the influence and visibility it deserves. Until recently, caterers were a mere division of airlines, we should never forget that, and they had as such no legal personality of their own.
With the first wave of airline privatisation that occurred in the late 80s and early 90s and the ensuing flux of outsourcing in the 90s, the first independent catering companies started to emerge.
But the market was still very much in the hands of the airline’s catering divisions until the early 2000s. But granted, that was already actually long overdue by 2018 – and as providers to airlines, and I must say it’s a cutthroat, competitive environment – airline caterers have realised that all that competition is good, if not, necessary from an economic standpoint.
But it shouldn’t be done at the expense of the industry’s core business or the industry’s ‘raison d’etre’ like food quality and safety and premise. These values must be applied globally, and this requires standards to be drafted and applied. It goes beyond safety and quality – a coordinated approach on these key technical policies and matters is the only way the industry can impose itself. These very standards that would otherwise be imposed on it by the regulators or the airlines themselves. And, we believe, we hope, we trust, that ACA will gradually fulfil this role.
PWV: So just over two years on, how many businesses are now members? I know you’ve touched upon some of your companies you’re working with, but can you give any more examples?
FG: We’ve had two add-ons with Saudi Airlines Catering and Servair and we’re discussing with another three at this stage – obviously I cannot name any names yet. Hopefully, we will soon be able to make a number of announcements.
“It’s important to say that our members today are responsible for around two-thirds of the world’s inflight catering market, and that represents around 100,000 employees worldwide.
Together, we have calculated that our members are responsible for around 4 million meals a day – that’s around 1.7 billion meals per year. If you want to compare, there are today around 4 billion passengers so we’re providing pretty much half of what they are eating onboard.
Now, to be fair, while a high number of industry members is important to us, for obvious reasons, it is not something we’re paying too much attention to. We believe that today, because we are still a very young association, laying the groundwork for a sound and sustainable trade body is much more important at this early stage. We’re now, which wasn’t the case a year ago, welcoming new and like-minded caterers onboard.
PWV: Fantastic, and for those caterers and companies that are joining you, what are the key benefits of joining the association?
FG: That’s the question that everyone is asking and it’s a legitimate question. I would answer that question with another question: can we afford not to belong to a group that debates, reflects, helps lineate the contours of the future of the industry? Especially at a time of increasing pressure from our customers, themselves confronted by a revolution every decade or so, since the deregulation of the industry. I guess the answer is in the question. Perhaps more concretely, there are a couple of aspects that we can put forward.
“We are discussing today with airline’s trade body, IATA, together we want to shape a template that both airlines and caterers will find useful to apply without each time having to reinvent the wheel. These are long-term negotiations and the interesting bit here is that only ACA members have a direct say in this conversation. So, if you’re an airline catering company out there and you for any reason believe that this is an important topic, and I believe every airline caterer believes so, joining ACA will give you a say in these negotiations.
Also, we’re promoting a collective re-thinking of the whole food processing, that we call farm-to-fork, with the creation of ad hoc working groups. We’re trying to find out, to identify the pain points that caterers may find in this process. Typically, such things as nominated products, the treatment of allergens which can be problematic, and which necessitate in my opinion, and I’d guess everyone’s opinion, a collective approach.
Finally, the third reason, we today are recognised as an interlocutor to a number of regulators, for instance, the European Commission on a number of dossiers, such as for instance, the question of single-use plastics, which is something I suppose we will be discussing in a few minutes. Also, reporting, analysis and follow-up of occurrences in aviation and not to mention, the relationship we have indirectly with IFSA, the FAA, FDA, and ISA in the European Union.
PWV: Sounds like there are lots of reasons for companies to consider joining the association. You’ve touched upon some of the biggest issues the industry is currently facing. What, in your opinion, are the stand-out challenges facing airlines and caterers, and how are you helping them face these issues? You’ve touched upon facilitating the conversation, can you give any examples from the association’s experience to date?
FG: Yes, first of all, we need to keep in mind that airline catering is a fascinating business. It has shown incredible adaptability and incredible resilience to the changing dynamics within the airline industry while mastering many logistical challenges that this entails.
The real difficulty for caterers is to avoid the traps in the race to the bottom that all-out competition and the growing requirements of customers leads to. One of the features of this industry is that the margins are so lean that anything that is not related to delivery, to the customers, has been and still is unfortunately considered a nefarious irritant.
I must say, having five major caterers agree to divest part of their means to the cause, which by definition is orientated to mid to long-term reflections required at the time, still does require some courage. To be frank, it was far from being a given.
What I mean here is that the idea of an association didn’t impose itself automatically like for instance in other perhaps more mature markets and industries. I can still see today some diffidence within the industry – it’s simply not a mindset that they are used to having and it takes some effort to try to explain and convince. But, I’m sure we’ll get there and its easier to do that once the major companies are backing you up.
PWV: In terms of the challenges ahead, you’ve touched upon margins which are an ongoing issue for the wider industry, as well as single-use plastics. In your opinion, what are the challenges facing your members in 2020 and beyond?
FG: Beyond 2020 I think the main challenge I can foresee is to transition from the race to the bottom approach into a race to the top. By race to the top, I mean serving better and tastier food and especially in a more sustainable way while maintaining high standards in safety. That should become the rule.
Sustainability, in particular, will most likely shape the discussions and be on the top of the aviation agenda and not only for caterers. Aspects such as food waste, the use of plastics, are already essential themes but they will be even more so in the future.
ACA can and will play a role in these topics – certainly not in terms of R&D or work on new materials obviously but in terms of legislation and defining common position.
PWV: Absolutely, sustainability is a big issue across the industry. Are you seeing airline caterers rising to this challenge and taking the steps to become more sustainable already?
FG: Definitely – all ACA members, I think it is fair to say, are engaged individually in various initiatives to improve their business sustainability because they are conscious of their impact on the whole structure.
To be honest, they are also expected by the industry and the passenger to show that they are doing their part. I won’t talk about these initiatives because they are individual initiatives and I’m not very well placed to talk about that, but what I can do though is talk about what we are doing as ACA. Before I do this, I think we need to keep in mind that we’re at the beginning of this process for obvious reasons – just being established two years ago. It’s fair to say we’re looking into four different directions – parallel directions.
First and foremost, the sustainability of the products – that means the food that caterers are delivering. It is a vast topic as you may imagine and entails many different aspects. From the farmers and the ways they are growing their groups, the producers, the way the food is transported – whether diesel or electric engines, the cooling chain, the preparation onboard, the cleaning of the tableware, the treatment of waste and recycling, etc all could constitute a chain or an element in the chain of sustainability. The difficulty here is to identify the right fights. We’ve identified mainly five, which is known/unknown suppliers, allergens, special meals, nominated products and waste management.
The second is CO2. Currently, in people’s minds, sustainability equals CO2 emissions. We can’t afford to be seeing the margin of the efforts that our customers are conducting via, for instance, CORSIA – the ICAO scheme. We’re currently in advanced discussions with our airport partners to determine if and how, we as ACA, and our sister association ASSA for ground handlers, can join their now relatively mature programme, that is called Airport Carbon Accreditation programme which is a voluntary initiative that is aiming at eventually achieving carbon neutrality at given airports, like all the CO2 that is emitted within the airport’s control. I’m hopeful by the first quarter of 2020 or so, that we will be able to come up with an announcement of some sort.
The third one – and perhaps the most visible part of the iceberg – is the contribution to the ban of single-use plastics. It may appear like a no-brainer today, but this requires a lot of thinking on how we can do that. It’s a complex topic, but we’re doing our bit here. And, if I can go back to the waste that I mentioned before, there is a lot of unused food and drink onboard that contributes significantly to waste. We know that the average passenger produces around 1.5kg of waste and 25% or one-fourth of that is untouched food or drink. This could either be reused, for instance, or redistributed safely. But, due to some conflicting legislation, we do not have that flexibility and we are forced to incinerate this waste. There is a lot we can do there, but it has to be conducted and helped, supported by more flexible legislation and this is something ACA is trying to do with IATA.
PWV: Sounds like good progress is being made within the industry. You’ve mentioned food waste and plastics, and we know there are lots of steps being taken by suppliers and caterers to look at alternative materials and personalised services to help reduce waste. Are there any key innovations or developments that have stood out since not only the start of the association but within your wider career in aviation?
FG: Definitely yes. I think that one thing that springs to mind is the rise of onboard retail food. That is different and new, novelty today compared to 20 years ago with the rapid rise of low-cost carriers. But even though I’m mentioning this, it is more of a logical consequence of the industry rather than a real innovation.
I believe the real innovation of the 21st century is perhaps not a visible one, but it’s the understanding by the airlines that the passenger experience, which is a relatively novel concept, can make and will make a difference to them and is a strong differentiator – actually only coming second to price.
Also, the understanding that the quality and diversity of food onboard – not only in business class – is key and essential to that passenger experience. Hence, the tendency to spend more and to require more with obviously a positive knock-on effect on the whole value chain.
I think it’s fair to say the business has been profoundly reshaped relatively recently – inflight catering has sped up processes and gone above ensuring food safety and sustainability through the introduction of technology implementation and greater digitalisation. That’s an important element of this. I guess it’s not unique to catering but has reshaped the way we’re providing our products.
For instance, airlines have taken the initiative through new custom design dinnerware, upgraded cutlery and placemats, revamped menus, etc. This has made it possible to include more variety and healthy food options to cater to passengers’ taste preferences, etc.
I think what we will see in the future, is the passenger will have more and more personal expectations and will not be satisfied by simply a menu with two options – either chicken or pasta, as we have traditionally seen in the past. These are important innovations that we will gradually see more and more onboard.
PWV: You’ve touched upon how technology is transforming the passenger and cabin experience. What impact is this having on the catering industry and driving airline catering and the options for passengers?
FG: One major aspect here is the rise of the internet – where people have direct access or can have direct access to a variety of menus that in the past, they didn’t have access to.
For instance, now when you’re booking your tickets you are being offered on more and more occasions, the possibility to choose your menu and to say whether you need a special menu or if you are allergic to something. The relationship between the customer and the caterer, which in the past didn’t exist, it was just a dotted line.
The real relationship was between the passenger and the company, so much so that whenever you were dissatisfied with something you’ve eaten you’d immediately think of the airline and not of the one who prepared the food. In people’s mind, this was non-existent and it was the airline’s responsibility.
Today, you can see this dotted line between the caterer and the passenger is becoming more and more solid. And, we as caterers understand the dynamics, the trends and the taste of the passenger and we’re more capable of responding to that different taste and to separate and make varying menus on demand. That’s where I believe technology and digitisation are bringing us to a different relationship – a more direct relationship between the caterer and the passenger.
PWV: That’s an interesting point. Are you seeing more involvement between caterers and passengers to understand the needs and desires of those travelling with airlines today?
FG: Definitely yes, I think this is a win-win situation – or I should say a win-win-win situation. It’s better for the passenger, as they can have the traceability of the products which is another thing we’re going to. A passenger wants to know where his/her meat is coming from, how the pork or the cow has been grown and fed, for example.
It’s also a win for the airline who will see that they gradually are less responsible for the relationship they have with their passengers, that is a reconnection with the caterer. The airline is not accused each time something goes wrong, so it improves the passenger experience.
And, it’s a win for us because we are closer to our customer – not being the airline this time – but the passenger. Hence we understand his/her tastes better and can anticipate things. With personalisation of products also comes traceability and a better working triangle between the passenger, the airline and the caterer.
PWV: That certainly does sound like a win-win-win situation for all.
FG: Definitely, it is just a matter of making sense and giving each other the role and responsibility that comes to each party. Previously, airlines were solely in charge of the passenger experience, and that was it. We were just asked to provide the usual chicken or pasta – that was the 20th century and we’re going into something different.
PWV: You mentioned some of the workshops the association is hosting, are there any other promotional campaigns or events over the coming months that will appeal to potential new members?
FG: We are looking at workshops – as a ground-zero event. ACA is coming out, but we going to try and pose the problem as we’ve never really discussed this together, we’ve always considered ourselves as competitors and never have taken the time to ask ourselves the most basic questions.
The only thing we’ve done so far, with credit to IFSA, is to come up with standards or guidelines on food safety. This is a document that is updated every two years, but that’s it. This has shown that the catering industry has the possibility when it takes the time to be heard, and to make a difference.
ACA’s main role is precisely this, to make sure we are being heard. The first thing that we need to do is to look at ourselves and our production chain and see what is working and what is not working, or working less well. To try and identify these pain points and come up with solutions, fixes by creating and proposing standards, norms, best practices and by editing reports and common positions.
But to do that, we first need to sit at the same table, that’s never really been done before. This time around we decided not to have if you will, a strategic part being discussed but the technical, operational and even legal topic being debated by the subject matter experts. From there on, we will see how ACA can deploy and propose working groups to try and look at the nitty-gritty of these pain points and barriers we agree we are facing in our value chain.
PWV: It certainly sounds like you’re working towards facilitating those conversations and encouraging tangible change for the benefit of the industry.
FG: I believe the role of a trade body to offer a common roof under which these discussions can take place. It’s an important aspect of any association like IFSA, ACI for airlines or airports, in that we’re trying to provide a common roof without which these discussions would be extremely difficult to have, simply because there would be no framework under which, through which these debates could take place amongst competitors.
We’re trying to lift the debate and assure them that all is being debated with the sole objective of the common benefit of the industry and that’s important. Yes, logistically, strategically this is all a lot of work but that is the real raison d’etre of the association.
PWV: Absolutely, so how can caterers find out more and get involved in the conversation and the work of the association?
FG: It’s pretty easy – just raise their hands and contact the secretariat and show their interest. We’d love to connect with like-minded catering companies. We’re opening now, which we were not doing one year ago, we were simply in a shaping period.
Now, we believe we have more solid ground and want to have other members join, if possible, members who believe in multilateralism. That is not a given – not everyone believes in multilateralism, it would be weird if I didn’t say that the future will be multilateralism. So, just raise their hands and contact us and tell us they’re interested.
You can get more details about the Airline Catering Association on their website. [www.aca.catering] They are also issuing briefings with COVID-19 Relief Measures around the world.