Exploring complexities and innovation within airline special meals provision

Collaborating with Jane Hobson, managing editor at PAX International Magazine, World Travel Catering & Onboard Services Expo (WTCE) recently hosted a virtual industry roundtable, bringing together prominent industry professionals to delve into the pivotal role of special meals programming within the aviation sector. Serving as a co-moderator, Julianne Ponan, MBE, CEO and Founder of Creative Nature, guided the discussion and facilitated insightful exchanges among the panellists.

The panel explored various challenges and considerations associated with providing specialised dietary options to passengers. With representatives from airlines, catering companies, and technology providers, the discussion was centred around the importance of meeting diverse dietary needs, ensuring passenger satisfaction, and upholding safety standards.

Distinct themes emerged from the discussions including the necessity for clear communication, standardised processes, and technological advancements to streamline meal provision and enhance the overall in-flight experience. Throughout the session, panellists emphasised the collaborative efforts needed to address the complexities of special meals provision and underscored the industry’s commitment to meeting evolving customer expectations while ensuring passenger safety and satisfaction.

Prioritising special meal provision

The panel stressed the importance of offering special meals across airlines to meet the diverse dietary needs of passengers, including religious, lifestyle, and medical requirements. They highlighted how meeting the evolving wishes and expectations of passengers is key to ensuring continued customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Sheri Whiteley, director at American Airlines commented, “Today’s customer is looking to be able to dine inflight just as they’re able to do on the ground. We really want to be able to offer that on board, and I think it’s a very important part of our dining experience.”

Gary Webber, CEO and Founder of InFlight Catering Software added, “The challenge is that if you don’t have special meals provisions, you are more than likely going to have an unhappy customer pretty much on every flight at this point. Allergies are on the rise, meaning the number of special meals that are now being requested has certainly gone up. So, managing unhappy customers versus profitability is the challenge at all times.”

Adding to the discussion, Wim Pannekoek, Director at Kragtwijk Finest Foods remarked, “Medical diets are especially important because passengers can have severe problems if there isn’t a suitable meal.”

Exploring the topic from the perspective of the wider industry, Ponan noted, “Special meals is quite a challenging environment in itself, but it’s great to see so many airlines are wanting to pioneer that change.”

Hurdles and challenges

Despite advances in technology and innovation in the sector, implementing special meal provisions in airline catering poses numerous challenges, including the complexity of ordering mechanisms, a lack of global standards and regulation alignment, and the need for clear communication and training throughout the supply chain.

One significant challenge is ensuring food safety and compliance with dietary restrictions while maintaining passenger satisfaction and choice. As Pannekoek highlights, “It’s not only about having a gluten-free meal on board because this is not the issue. It’s about food safety, and about the safety of the passengers.” He adds, “If there is any doubt, or any way you can choose between safe service or appearance, you should always go for safety because it’s life-threatening.”

Balancing these priorities requires meticulous coordination between airlines, caterers, and regulatory bodies to guarantee the accuracy of ingredients and prevent cross-contamination, especially concerning allergens.

Logistical constraints present additional hurdles, particularly for airlines with hubs in remote locations. Thorunn Björg Guðmundsdóttir, Onboard Service Implementation Specialist for Icelandair highlights the logistical difficulties of getting products to the company’s hub in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. She comments, “Our reactive time is a little bit longer if we wanted to make changes to our selection.” Limited access to fresh ingredients and extended delivery times further complicate the timely provision of specialised meals, driving the need for strategic planning and inventory management.

In line with this, inventory and forecasting pose significant challenges for airlines when it comes to providing special meals. Webber highlights the expense of preloading meals without confirmed orders, commenting, “It’s incredibly expensive. Nobody’s cracked the code on how many meals we need.”

Accurate forecasting relies on historical data and demographic trends but evolving dietary preferences and passenger demographics complicate the matter. To mitigate waste and enhance efficiency, Audrey Hart, Leading Food, Beverage & Ancillaries at Virgin Atlantic emphasises the importance of staying attuned to ground trends and demographic shifts.

From a logistical perspective, Lance Hayward, MD and Founder of The Hayward Partnership, explains that the information provisioning to the airline caterer “tends to be a bit hit and miss. Very often, you’ll get a call from the aircraft saying, where’s the special meal? And, as the caterer, we simply didn’t get the information through. The nature of the booking systems means that very often you don’t get the right information through.”

Hayward continues, “So technologically, that’s the first thing you need to ask – did we get the right information at the right time so that we could actually react? And did we get enough notice to actually respond to that?”

Technology and innovation

The discussion also emphasised the role of technology in improving the provision of special meals, with a focus on real-time communication between airlines, caterers, and passengers. The adoption of tech allows for more diverse options and ensures timely processing of last-minute orders.

Webber highlighted, “The solution for airlines to be able to offer a great service today is to have a live platform, that everything gets communicated through. So, as that last minute order comes in for a peanut-free meal, for example, it gets processed in a timely manner. It’s really just a matter of adopting the right tech and working with local food providers to offer local food options. All of that is really simple to offer and we’re seeing a transition. As it’s often a slow process for airlines to adopt new technology, there’s a lot of players involved, but they are quickly solving the special meals problem.”

AI-driven forecasting tools and centralised catering platforms offer promising avenues to streamline operations and improve accuracy. However, Whiteley underscores the logistical complexities, noting, “Our customers order between 365 days and up to 24 hours before a flight. And then a caterer has to have everything done four hours before the flight. So, it leaves about eight hours for caterers to react.”

Ultimately, airlines must balance offering diverse meal options with minimising waste to remain profitable while meeting evolving customer expectations.

Enhancing brand loyalty

In addition, the panellists discussed how offering a personalised service and anticipating customer needs can help to foster brand loyalty. They emphasised the importance of trust, safety, and meeting dietary requirements to ensure passengers are satisfied with their meal options.

Whiteley elaborated, “We want to evolve into getting customers excited about their meal options and meeting their dietary requirements.” This idea underscores the need for airlines to go beyond mere compliance and strive to delight passengers with their meal offerings.

By leveraging technology to anticipate and fulfil customer needs, as Webber suggests, airlines can create memorable experiences that build trust and loyalty. Ultimately, investing in improved meal programmes not only meets regulatory requirements but also cultivates a stronger emotional connection with passengers, fostering lasting loyalty to the airline brand.

World Travel Catering & Onboard Services Expo (WTCE) is the leading global event for travel catering, onboard retail and passenger comfort. WTCE is renowned globally for providing a platform for innovative suppliers to showcase the latest products and services in passenger comfort, catering and travel retail to help create the ultimate passenger experience.