August 4, 2021

Adaptation is key

Airline industry brokers and suppliers are adapting their businesses to meet the changing demands of food service created by COVID-19. Jo Austin talks to key players about the changing times

As flying slowly begins to restart post pandemic, many airlines have had to rethink their food service and adapt to new levels of demand and new delivery regimes.

Brokers and suppliers have been working with manufacturers around the world to evolve premium products and create multiple solutions to meet these new style customer menus and service requirements.

In the U.S., for example, established broker D&F Marketing, Inc (DFMi) reports that the majority of its airline customers have resumed many flights for domestic travel, but at broadly only 45-50% capacity compared to this time last year. International travel is still down by around 80% due primarily to the continued outbreaks of COVID-19 globally and the quarantine restrictions being required.

DFMi’s marketing director Kim Brown, says: “In the U.S airlines have kept 10-15% of locations closed, due to lack of traveller demand. Specifically, Delta has over 30 catering kitchens in the U.S. but believes it will only operate 10-12 of those once final decisions are made on its operation size post- COVID-19. American Airlines is also reviewing its destinations and kitchens based on the expected volumes. It is obviously a fluid situation and subject to change as the outlook changes.” 

Returning to service

In Premium class cabins some limited food service is returning. Brown adds: “Most items are pre-wrapped or part of a shelf-stable meal kit. Main cabin is being served limited wrapped snacks and bottled water. Airlines have been busy base-lining current inventory and looking at how to best utilise what they already own. All are trying to limit the number of times passenger masks are removed during flights, to help limit any virus exposure for passengers.”

Opportunities for new products or menu changes are not being considered until Q1 or Q2 of 2021 she says, although there is some hope this date may come forward as passenger numbers begin to increase.

The company reports a small uptick in Business travel demand but Brown says: “Many businesses are still limiting corporate travel due to budget cuts and company travel policies for a pandemic. Large companies that maintain a travel desk or agency have furloughed many of those employees and unfortunately the virtual office, Zoom and Skype meetings or conference calls are becoming the norm. We are also reading that most companies, post-pandemic will have a hard time ignoring the ROI realised through virtual meetings over traditional face-to-face meetings. This shift in how businesses interact with one another will likely slow the speed of recovery as it relates to the Business traveller.”

Projections for recovery vary widely from two to eight years but Brown anticipates that by April 2021 the company’s overall business will be at 50% of 2019 levels. She believes a vaccine combined with strong competition through loyalty programme perks and fare price wars will encourage passengers back onboard in 2021.

Broadening the range

While airline customers work their way through excess inventory stocks and require limited F&B services, DFMi has diversified its product line and partnered with suppliers to provide masks, gloves, hand sanitisers and wipes. Jody Jones, vp operations business development, adds: “We can now offer individually wrapped gloves or masks, or provide what we call a Health Safety Kit that includes several components the airline can customise and brand. We have also researched and sourced ways to provide items that will reduce the amount of handling the flight attendants would typically do and support the airlines’ mandate for passenger safety first.”

Usual interactions with U.S. airline customers have changed she adds: “With the additional involuntary furloughs and reorganisation now taking place at airlines, we are waiting for introductions to new team members and to hear how the plans for onboard services will be restructured for each individual airlines going forward. F&B budgets have never been excessive but during the recovery from the heavy financial losses caused by COVID-19, we believe they will be even more cost-conscious.”

Jones expects healthier and sustainable items likely to be in demand, with fewer choices available. The health of the flight crews and passengers will remain a key priority and brokers and suppliers will have to adapt to this and accept the challenges that lie ahead. 

In terms of delivery, airlines are looking for ways to minimise the amount of times the flight crews walk the aisles and interact with the passengers to support safety onboard and some are asking for new, creative solutions for ambient, heatable entrée meals, pre-packed frozen, thaw-and-serve meals, and wrapped snacks suitable for all-day service that will suit the post-COVID environment.Products such as that from La Colombe which offers a range of read-to drink coffees that do not require any handling by flight crew. The sealed cup is only touched by the passenger and can offered either complimentary or part of a retail menu.

Collaboration focus

At En Route International, with offices in London, Dubai, Atlanta and Brisbane, the focus is also on its strong manufacturing partnerships, packing stations, warehouse and transport links as the team works to find innovative solutions, adapted for current times.

Hamish Cook, executive director at En Route International, says: “We took the decision to move quickly to understand what passengers wanted at the very outset of the pandemic. This meant gathering as much insight as possible from our clients, and other avenues, which ultimately fed into the development of a number of products.
The number one priority for passengers revealed in our research was visible product integrity. We know they want products which allowed for fewer cabin movements or touch points from crew.”

Communication about the F&B back story and sustainability issues have also remained high on customer agendas, he says. “Despite the current challenges, consumers still want to know where the food has come from, how it has been packed, and what it has been packed in.” 

This insight fed directly into the development of a ‘light touch’ meals range, as well as the launch of a ‘flip and peel’ cheese offer, adapting popular established products to provide service solutions that reassure customers now. 

Cook adds: “Not only have we had to adapt our products, but we’ve also had to create new approaches for the development process itself. In addition to our existing creative design studio, we developed a virtual presentation suite to enable us to communicate efficiently with manufacturers and other partners in our supply chain.” 

He is optimistic the global love of travel will return in time and insists the key will be to keep adapting as the situation changes, evolving new solutions quickly and through collaborations.

He concludes: “Manufacturers, producers, airlines and caterers will all have to work together to ensure that consumers are confident product is safe, as well as maintaining its quality. The need for the whole supply chain to collaborate has never been more important. Businesses which have the ability to move quickly to innovate will be in a strong position to support airlines as consumer demands evolve.” 

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