All change?

September 6, 2019

U.S. airlines are changing their priorities and sharpening their focus. Julie Baxter asks Paul Platamone, outgoing IFSA president, how suppliers can keep up

In recent years, as profits grew, carriers invested more significantly in F&B, but for 2020 I think the tide is turning somewhat. There has already been some belt tightening going on, but that’s probably OK because in recent years there has been some quite questionable spending. Airlines haven’t always really known what to spend their budgets on. They are now becoming more sensible and spending is becoming quite strategic. Lorenzo sups virgin olive oil daily for its high levels of oleic acid, which helps reduce his risk of coronary heart disease. And as onboard passengers look for nutritious and healthy options, it’s great olive oil producers can now promote this qualified health claim.

More and more U.S. airlines are talking about the customer experience – that has become a kind of airline department in its own right. First, marketing departments evolved into brand and now brand has morphed into customer experience. All the major American airlines have gone through this change to put customer experience at the heart of what they do. The lines between departments are blurring and while they all have the same objectives, they often exist in silos and this can create horrible disfunction within airlines. Suppliers have to try to understand and deal with this.

Traditionally, airline F&B buyers had 10-20 years experience of airline catering and understood the fact that ours is a purely operational business. Flying aircraft is pure operations and airline catering is a sub-category of that, focused on the F&B and all its surrounding equipment and logisitics. But in recent years the focus on brand and customer experience has meant many airlines have lost their operational experts, and that has resulted in a huge loss of knowledge. Marketing and brand people don’t always fully understand the mechanics of F&B – that’s fair enough because that is not their primary responsibility – but the purge of those with the historic knowledge of what it takes to deliver service is being lost too, and that is a real challenge.

From the outside looking in it can sometimes seem like the lunatics have taken over the asylum! The people making decisions don’t fully understand the practical limitations of what they are trying to achieve and they no longer have the personnel within their organisations who do. Those who recognise this are now really starting to see the value of the suppliers they work with and the vital knowledge they bring. This growing recognition really does give me hope. It means airlines are beginning to realise that just because an idea has been written down as a plan it doesn’t mean it will happen. Service requires pure operational, practical commitment, not just great ideas.

Our challenge is to be part of a constant re-education process. Airline buyers change all the time so it’s a perpetual task to help them understand what they are buying and how it has to be bought. For brokers, the same applies to the people and products they represent. The personnel changes frequently, so increasingly the broker is the glue and the go-between, operating in a very niche business that is highly specialised. As an industry we have a lot of very experienced people with a lot of knowledge and that gives us real added-value to the airlines we serve. As an operations-based business we are used to the fact that things go wrong and things change, so we have become specialists in crisis management. People who have the expertise and enthusiasm to function in this environment stay in the industry and thrive. For them, every challenge is an opportunity.