Frankfurt Frequent flyers still know the question: “Would you like chicken or pasta?” Until the start of the pandemic, they had to answer this question from cabin crew over and over again. Then suddenly it was over, the travel restrictions forced the jets to the ground. On the few flights that still took place, there was no more food due to infection control.
In the meantime, people are flying more again, and the topic of in-flight catering is back. Although Erdmann Rauer has his problems with this term. The CEO of the Lufthansa subsidiary LSG Group says: “Catering is much more than in-flight catering, i.e. the tray in front of every passenger.”
According to Rauer, catering is historically only a free delivery at the seat, free of charge, but the passenger can hardly influence it. That will change. “The vision of configuring your food will become reality,” predicts the LSG boss. Individualization can no longer be stopped.
Aircraft catering is a growth market. Market researchers from GMI (Global Market Insight) expect the global business volume in so-called in-flight catering to increase from USD 8.89 billion in the first year of the pandemic, 2020, to USD 21.76 billion in 2027.
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In addition, airlines have been dreaming of passengers who put their own food together and, of course, pay for it, for years. But many approaches failed. Because catering on the plane has to do with cooking, but it is also a logistical challenge.
Producing the right products in the right quantity at the right time and getting them to the plane is anything but trivial. On the one hand, digitization opens up new possibilities. The IT systems are the central nervous system, says Rauer.
This not only helps with classic aircraft catering, it is particularly important for the growing on-board retail business, i.e. with products that are offered on the plane and that are already advertised on the airline’s website, for example. “Without good on-board management, optimal assembly and logistics, there would be no offer in the aircraft,” says Rauer: “The IT systems are the basis for assembled on-board products.”
Passengers are becoming more demanding when it comes to menus
On the other hand, the airlines cannot ignore the changing wishes and sensitivities of their customers. For decades, many airline managers saw catering primarily as a cost factor that had to be reduced year after year. That no longer works because, just like in the kitchen at home, the demands on food are increasing on the plane.
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Healthy and balanced nutrition, the growing number of food allergies, sustainably produced food, but also the expectation of getting good food for one’s money – all of this is driving change. “Passengers want to know what they’re eating,” says Rauer. And gives examples.
A frequent flyer wants to be able to order the best wine, even if he has booked Eco, for example. “The offer is no longer based on the booking class, but on the passenger.” That’s why airlines are experimenting with new catering concepts everywhere.
The Gulf airline Emirates has entered into a joint venture with Crop One, a specialist in vertical farming, the sustainable production of lettuce, for example, in buildings over several levels. Together, the partners have opened the largest farm in this area near Dubai Airport.
Those traveling long-haul with Air France in premium class from Paris will still be able to enjoy menus created by the well-known French chefs Michel Roth and Anne-Sophie Pic until October. At the same time, the Lufthansa rival is working on using meat, dairy products and eggs from French production as well as fish from sustainable farming on flights from Paris in the near future.
While the so-called special meal has so far only been reserved for passengers who cannot eat the standard menu for religious or health reasons, such requests should soon be possible for all passengers. Rauer describes the procedure at LSG as he is shown the options for catering relatively early in the booking process. But depending on the location, wishes could also be taken into account on the day of the flight.
“Not only the crews, who will be able to approach the passenger much more individually in the future, have to adapt,” says Rauer: “It’s also a challenge for the kitchens.” possess intelligence. They would become modular construction kits. “For example, a customer always chooses a protein dish, which can then be flexibly supplemented.”
In addition, the system knows the preferences of customers who fly regularly and makes suggestions. “The airlines cluster the customers and can thus estimate relatively well what is needed on board.” According to Rauer, there are already so-called pre-order systems, and some American customers are already using this function.
In the meantime, however, some caterers no longer only rely on the catering on board. Because there were hardly any flights due to travel restrictions, little food was requested. Up until the crisis, for example, LSG had a turnover of 2.3 billion euros a year. In 2021 it was only a good 1.1 billion euros. 18,600 people currently work for LSG, before the crisis there were around 26,000.
LSG food also for end customers
The LSG boss was overjoyed that the company had established additional pillars before the outbreak of Corona. In addition to in-flight sales, this also includes supplying end customers via partners such as Starbucks or 7-Eleven – known in technical jargon as convenience retail.
“Initially, the catering business declined by 85 percent, and our kitchens urgently needed to be used alternatively,” says Rauer, “that’s why we continued to expand in the convenience retail area in the direction of ghost kitchens.” This means kitchens without a guest room and service staff who only prepare and deliver.
Cleaning up after eating in the jet must also become more sustainable. According to the world airline association IATA, there is an average of 1.43 kilograms of cabin waste per passenger per flight. That doesn’t really fit with aviation’s plans to become climate-neutral by 2050.
However, with the strict hygiene requirements and the packaged products, it is difficult to avoid waste. Here, too, LSG relies on modern technology. When the trolleys are unloaded after the flight, the contents are photographed. The system registers, for example, that yoghurt or scrambled eggs are often left untouched – so the kitchen can rely on alternatives in the future. “These are small details, but overall they help to make flying more sustainable and the passengers happier,” says Rauer.
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