Return Of In-Flight Catering As Burden To Airlines

In-flight catering that was suspended in the wake of COVID-19 has returned. It brings to the fore the overstretching of airlines’ finances and, at the same time, trying to abide by regulatory directive, WOLE SHADARE writes

Going back memory lane

The first airline meals were served on a Handley-Page flight from London to Paris on October 11, 1919. They were pre-packed lunch boxes at three shillings each. United Airlines is the first airline to install kitchens on-board and provide passengers with hot meals in 1936.

 On March 2, 1969, British Airways and Air France became renowned for their high-quality cuisine serving items such as champagne, caviar, black truffle, foie gras and lobster.

 In the 1970s, airline travel for the masses and lowering the cost of tickets became a priority over providing the best quality food. This has continued to this present moment when in-flight meals became part of flight operations including short haul flights and domestic flights lasting between one hour or little more.

The global market for in-flight catering services is projected to reach $22.4billion by 2025.This is  driven by the unprecedented rise in air passenger traffic and the resulting increase in demand for airline food and the increasing popularity of gourmet food catering as a competitive strategy for service differentiation among airline companies.

Food and fine dining, Wi-Fi connectivity and on-board entertainment, duty-free in-flight shopping, are few of the in-flight services gaining in popularity as new value added services capable of opening new revenue opportunities.

 

In-flight meals

Consumers’ demand

Growing consumer demand for high quality, premium healthy food even while flying is helping boost the prominence of food and drink as vital on-board services with the potential to impact overall passenger flying service experience.

Although price is one of the factors that keep passengers on international flights satisfied, studies have revealed that food is also an important factor when it comes to keeping passengers happy. Surveys that have ranked in-flight services such as cost and fees, aircraft, flight crew, check-in, boarding, immigration, baggage and reservations etc., have highlighted food and beverage as ranking on par with entertainment as key to passenger satisfaction.

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Airline companies are increasingly waking up to the importance of food and beverage in roping in repeat passengers and retaining customers on international routes. Airliners are building their brands in new and powerful ways by delighting customers with exquisite in-flight experiences. One of these involves offering food and beverages unique to each company`s culture.

The Nigeria experience

On the Nigerian domestic scene, not much can be said as the carriers give passengers virtually the same packed snacks except for one or two airlines that provide what looks like descent meal. Airlines in Nigeria do not use meals or snacks as a tool for retaining customers’ loyalty.

But one cannot really blame the carriers because most trips in Nigeria are one hour or less than that. They are very short to warrant in-flight snacks. The enormous cost of in-flight catering has one way or the other affected the bottom-line of airlines as catering alone costs the carriers so much.

On the other hand, one may equally be aware that the suspension of catering services by airlines could lead to job losses of unprecedented proportions.

But since it had been part of the offering, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) recently instructed Nigerian carriers to restore the service that was suspended in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic.

Catering service resumption

Shortly before flight resumption last year, more than a year after air travel was shut, Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika had announced the suspension of in-flight catering. The decision was taken in a bid to minimize the spread of the deadly disease.

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All the airlines suspended flight attendant service of food and drinks to reduce cabin interactions that could spread the virus. Longer flights have more food options than short routes, and service typically depends on flight length.

Knowing what scientists have learned about studying coronavirus transmissions linked to flights – and as daily infections hit record highs in the United States and many other countries – can how you choose to eat on the plane impact your chances of picking up (or spreading) the coronavirus?

Risk

Following new studies on the impact of limited food service and increased masking on flights, experts said yes. While passengers have always been able to bring and consume their own food on flights, doctors say cabin service introduces unique risks.

In an effort to lower the risk of contamination and save some cash, airlines made drastic changes to their services, both on the ground and in the air. This included closing lounges and cutting all or most in-flight service. However, as the situation is evolving and airlines are introducing new safety measures, they are also re-opening some lounges and expanding their onboard and beverage offerings.

Most airlines are offering complimentary snacks and drinks again on many flights, while some are even offering food for purchases in economy and full meals in premium cabins. Most airlines that went dry have also resumed alcohol service.

Catering firms heave sigh of relief

But in March this year, Sirika, at a media briefing of the presidential task force (PTF) on COVID-19, in Abuja, announced the resumption of in-flight catering services. He said the decision was taken in consideration of the businesses involved in the provision of in-flight refreshments which have been adversely affected by the suspension.

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He, however, explained that modalities for the resumption of catering services would be worked on and rolled out by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), which will be in line with international practices.

Not a few wondered why the Nigerian aviation regulatory body was re-introducing in-flight catering services at a time passengers were getting used to not having it and at a period domestic carriers are adjusting and balancing the books as a result of COVID-19 that seriously affected and still affecting them.

In-flight meals

More tellingly is the rationale in handing over goody bags to traveler after a flight if the distribution of meals cannot be done during flight operations. That may have defeated the purpose of in-flight catering services.

Air fares are said to be comparatively low but higher if one considers that many Nigerians cannot afford airfares or afford to travel by air because of the harsh economic realities.

Aero’s bold move

Aero Contractors, Nigeria’s oldest airline in the face of global economic meltdown in 2009 pioneered the no free in-flight catering services, electing to sell snacks onboard for passengers who desired meals on-board.

Aero Contractors sales of snacks onboard its flight tagged, ‘Sky Snax’ was applauded by stakeholders, saying that the airline was only responding to economic realities of that time. The carrier stopped serving its passengers in-flight meals in all its one hour flights.

Last line

The bottom-line for scrapping in-flight catering services is that it would help airlines in generating ancillary revenue to shore up liquidity. Industry experts support it as one of the known methods used to increase revenue.

Wole Shadare