Fresh food is going off the menu for airlines as ready-to-eat becomes the new norm

Food served on board the economy class of an airplane (Representative Image: Shutterstock)

Food served on board the economy class of an airplane (Representative Image: Shutterstock)

The Indian palate is hard to please and more so up in the air where the senses of smell and taste are known to change. COVID-19 restrictions on catering in the skies have given way to full meal service on all flights, from an earlier mandate of meals only on flights that take longer than two hours. The choice of a meal, however, seems to have changed permanently.

Airlines in India have tried a lot of variations — from offering Krispy Kreme donuts to kebabs from Karim’s — the famed Delhi eatery! But all those attempts ended with a quiet withdrawal of the special menu.

In October, Vistara reintroduced hot meals in its economy class. They were restricted to vegetarian options. Last month, AirAsia India introduced a new menu in its in-flight selection. This included some exotic dishes like spinach, ricotta and mushroom cannelloni or Awadhi chicken tikka biryani.

IndiGo, the market leader, offers Pita bread with dips or something as exotic as couscous, falafel and dry fruit salad. But all of this comes with a catch — pre-booking is essential to partake of these meals!

From fighting over large offerings of fresh products to having a large offering of ready-to-eat meals, the fresh food options for passengers have diminished. A large part of this is driven by the financial position of airlines over the years and more so during the current times.

Flavour of the season – longer shelf life!

In 2004, when Air Deccan pioneered the Low Cost Carrier (LCC) model in India, passengers started getting used to the buy-on-board concept. This phase saw the launch of new LCCs like IndiGo, Go FIRST (previously Go Air) and SpiceJet and offer the same buy-on-board experience.

After the initial competition over meals, the airlines took different directions and came up a standardised menu. But as losses started mounting and airlines entered the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing became common — menus that have a longer shelf life! With very limited full service carriers in the country the only hot meal option for airline passengers on LCCs became ready-to-eat meals and for a reason.

Upma, noodles, poha and biryani come with a long shelf life. If there is no sale on a particular segment, they can be sold on the next one or the one after that or even the next day, unlike say a sandwich, which comes with an expiry date and time!

This has had a bigger impact during Covid times because regulations around in-flight catering, allowing flights between two cities and more, have been prone to change, sometimes overnight. An unlikely casualty of this has been the flight kitchens, whose business has slumped more than the airlines.

In a market where losses are the norm and profit a rarity and where margins are as thin as a boarding pass, who has the appetite to uplift catering and see it go down the drain for lack of consumption!

How does the meal service work?

Airlines contract flight kitchens for meals. Past data and flight timings dictate the mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals. More meals are loaded on flights than the number of seats to ensure that passengers are given the choice of meals they want. The items you see in the meal tray may not always be procured by the flight kitchen. At times, airlines may procure them directly and have them stored before the flight kitchen packs them as part of the meal tray.

Even with all the data and analysis, it is still hard to decode the decision in an environment where passengers are not keen to upload the meal choice, because from a passenger’s perspective, a butter chicken or pav bhaji can make him or her change sides, why be stuck with a meal type without knowing the menu!

Sometimes, meal choices are also sector-specific. Those flights heading to/from religious places see passengers opt for vegetarian options and to make it more complex, sometimes passengers opt for vegetarian meals on the way to the religious destination but opt for non-vegetarian on the way out.

While the cost of a meal may not be much (ranging from Rs 250 to Rs 750), any additional catering that may go waste is an avoidable loss.

The logic of only one meal type

With multiple options to offer, full-service carriers carry additional meals, leading to higher costs and this is where the logic of one meal type comes in. Air India, for example, offers only vegetarian fare in the economy class. This means that from earlier two options of veg or non-veg – the new options are Yes or No from a passenger perspective when asked for meals!

This helps the airline cater a specific number of meals without wastage and reduce the cost substantially.

Way forward

Over the last year, aviation has seen many changes and if there is one key take-away then it is the fact that nothing is permanent! When an airline decides to do something different, competition catches up quickly. Jet Airways lost no time in installing seat-back TVs when Kingfisher Airlines launched operations. Imagine how easy it will be to just change the menu.