“For a number of years, pasta and chicken were the only two options traditionally offered to passengers on-board and that was mostly accepted,” says Fabio Gamba, managing director of the Airlines Catering Association (ACA). 

“These were the times where you only had availability of two or three films during the long-haul journey, but with the advent of the internet, and with the possibility that technology is giving, there was an understanding that personal experience does matter and so the traditional chicken or pasta option very suddenly became more than this.”

Having long been involved in the airline catering sector, Gamba has seen onboard options evolve dynamically over the last few years, increasingly taking the choice away from the airlines and putting it in passengers’ hands. 

After the coronavirus pandemic grounded aircraft around the world, airlines are now looking for new ways to encourage passengers to fly again in 2021. Improving and increasing their menu choices could help them achieve this purpose.

But what exactly will people be looking for in their carrier’s food and drinks menu this year, and what trends will influence their demands?

General outlook: ground zero for aviation stakeholders

Unsurprisingly, some of the events that have negatively characterised 2020 – such as Covid-19 and the climate change crisis – are expected to have significant impacts on the new year and overall passenger trends. 

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“For 2021, if you’re looking at future trends, don’t expect things to change because of [passengers’] changes in taste,” says Gamba. “I’m sure that 2021 will be a year of ground zero-type of changes.”

“Eating local products grown sustainably, with all the information that you need to have on the package, is one of the solutions.”

Yet as the industry gears up for the rollout of new vaccines, some meal preferences and trends can already be seen, says World Food Travel Association program manager Jane Connelly. “[Passenger food] trends will be driven by the market, and they’re going to mirror what we’re seeing taking place in society right now, so special diets – including gluten-free or any kind of allergies – but also sustainability and ethical food options,” she comments. “Travellers’ expectations are increasing in the sense that they want something local and authentic.”

Many airlines are turning to local producers for their inflight meals. “People are becoming conscious that we have the solutions to their queries right in front of them,” says Gamba. “Eating local products grown sustainably, with all the information that you need to have on the package, is one of the solutions.”

Covid-19: addressing false myths

Coronavirus has caused significant disruption to airline caterers not just because of travel bans but also by making people sceptical and fearful of eating out. “This is one of our biggest battles and it has certainly been throughout 2020, to tell everyone that Covid-19 and food are unrelated and food is not and cannot be a vector of the virus,” comments Gamba. 

To avoid confusion, earlier this year the ACA even published a set of guidelines aimed at educating the public and helping the sector carry on throughout the crisis. However, Jane Connelly stresses that more transparency on the issue will help convince travellers of the lack of risks. 

“Passengers want to know how food is prepared.”

“Passengers want to know how food is prepared, whether people are wearing masks and gloves, so airlines should be as transparent as they can to assure passengers that it was prepared in a safe way,” she asserts. 

Yet while Gamba confirms that social distancing measures are already in place in global kitchens, some airlines have taken more drastic initiatives. KLM Catering Services, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ catering services provider, recently started using a robot to produce meals for its economy class. 

Despite the savings this move might offer, Gamba remains sceptical. “We all relate to food and knowing that it has been prepared with care by a traditional human-intensive labour force is somehow reassuring, and you don’t want that to change,” he says.

The increasingly central role of sustainability

The airline industry has long been struggling to set their record straight when it comes to sustainability, and this is something that many passengers are increasingly looking for when picking their carrier. 

“People haven’t been travelling as frequently as they used to or not travelling at all,” says Jane Connelly. “So when they do start to travel, they’re going to be thinking harder about how they want to spend their money and which airline they want to spend it with.”

By extension, this involves on-board meals too. From food offerings to the way that meals are served, produced and handled after a flight, operators’ environmental choices have increasing relevance to travellers, as many airlines have already shown. 

“We caterers work in close loops and everything is produced, consumed and thrown [away] within a closed circle.”

For example, Emirates Flight Catering, which provides meals for over 100 airlines at Dubai Airport, claims it will now use artificial intelligence technology to reduce food waste by 35%. The initiative relies on intelligent cameras, smart scales and meters to analyse ingredients used during food preparation and identify the meals that are wasted more often. Both Connelly and Gamba expect similar sustainability initiatives to continue in 2021. 

Yet many challenges remain, especially when it comes to banning single-use plastics and recycling. “Even though there have been a lot of attempts, trials and initiatives aimed at [making catering more sustainable], it’s quite complicated and the legislation worldwide doesn’t allow us to do that,” says Gamba. “However, we caterers work in close loops and everything is produced, consumed and then thrown [away] within a closed circle.”

Increasing choice: veganism and pre-flight deliveries

Recycling may be hard to enforce for now, but when it comes to food, more and more airlines are realising the importance of offering plant-based alternatives. 

Qatar Airways is one such case, having recently added its first range of fully vegan dishes to its à la carte menu for Business Class passengers on all flights. Meals included in this option will be made from locally sourced ingredients and will be available on all flights departing from Hamad International Airport. 

Both Connelly and Gamba identify this move as a key indicator that passengers want greater choice for their meals. “Having a menu with many options to include the special diets, local authentic choices and sustainable choices is something that airlines will start focusing on in the future,” explains Connelly. 

While this is only just starting to become a trend, some airlines are now allowing passengers to make their own menu, adds Gamba. “The good thing about that is that because you’ve chosen your meal, you have the tendency to eat more of it and this is interesting for the airline because we embark less quantity.”

“Having a menu with many options to include the special diets, local authentic choices and sustainable choices is something that airlines will start focusing on in the future.”

Beyond ethical trends, airlines are also warming to the concept of pre-flight food deliveries. This is according to a new partnership between Transavia and food ordering company Just Eat, which will allow passengers to order a meal up to an hour before take-off. 

The initiative has so far seen widespread success, though Gamba believes it might struggle to survive in the long term. “We’re going towards a more personal set of choices, that’s where the industry is going and there’s no turning back,” he says. “We have now the technology to do that, […] but the only problem is the scale, and so I don’t believe too much in this trend as a longer-term option, and as a new solution.”

Finally, Connelly believes that 2021 will be a year of new collaborations between airlines and tourism authorities, educating travellers about their destination’s culinary heritage. “Caterers have a unique opportunity to give passengers a taste of a country’s food culture,” she concludes. “That would aid gastro diplomacy and openness for passengers once they arrive at a destination.”