Planning ahead

Nik Loukas

A shift towards the pre-ordering of onboard catering could massively impact waste and boost passenger satisfaction. Nik Loukas looks at its practicalities and potential pitfalls

Travelling through the U.S. recently, I was curious to see that many airlines there are using their apps and websites to tempt passengers to pre-order onboard meals. One of the most significant differences of pre-ordering in the U.S. compared to Europe and Asia is that passengers there do not pay for the meal upfront. Instead, they select the items they require and settle the bill by credit card when the food arrives at their seat.

Alaska Airlines is among those leading the way. It launched its pre-order service in November 2017, offering a range of platters, salads, a signature cheese selection, breakfast options and more to, pre-order for prices from $8.50, and there can be up to four options offered on any given flight. Additionally, the airline has recently collaborated with Seattle-based restaurant Evergreens to offer its popular Beets So Fly chicken salad.

Doing the prep

Passengers can order from three weeks out up to 20 hours before departure. Once ordered online, details are fed to their caterer for provisioning and then sent to the flight attendants’ devices for the crew to deliver the meals inflight.

David Rodriguez, manager onboard retail food & beverage at Alaska Airlines, explains the process: “We send out a pre-trip email that includes a call to action to order a meal along with a link to the functionality”. Inflight guides onboard help to capture any passengers who may have missed the email, or forgot to pre-order.

The results speak for themselves. The airline recently hit a milestone where more than 30% of all main cabin meals purchased were pre-ordered.

“Guests are becoming more and more accustomed to pre-ordering,” says Rodriguez. “This could be partly due to the fact that many people now use popular apps such as Uber Eats and Starbucks to order F&B as part of their daily lives. Main cabin customers on Alaska Airlines love to pre-order, and the feedback has been fantastic.”

And there is more to the concept than simply offering a more personalised service to passengers – it also supports cost and waste reduction.

Firstly, pre-ordering helps the airline reduce unnecessary overloading of product, which reduces overall aircraft weight and also cuts waste from uneaten meals. “This is a concern for everyone as we think of ways to live more sustainably,” adds Rodriguez.

Longer-term, the carrier also benefits from a closer relationship with passengers – they receive their preferred meal choice and so satisfaction levels rise. The most popular item for Alaska Airlines is its Signature Fruit & Cheese Platter and Rodriguez says: “Guests consistently express how happy they are to be reassured they will get one of these inflight by pre-ordering.”

Previously guests have appreciated having the choice, but have then been disappointed when an option has sold out. Flight attendants, in turn, are often frustrated they can’t deliver.

It’s not just main cabin guests that are benefitting from pre-ordering. For the last two years First customers on longer routes have been able to select their main meal option. “Loyal Alaska travellers have been requesting we extend it to shorter flights ever since we launched. We just expanded to all flights that have a choice of fresh options in January 2020,” explains Rodriguez. For First passengers, another incentive to pre-order is offering the popular cheese plate as an add-on to the choices that were scheduled for that flight. It gives guests a simple, quality and consistent experience.

Making it click

As with anything, technology does have its limits. “Considering the complexities of airline catering, we have had tremendous success with pre-order,” says Rodriguez. “Sure, there are cases of swaps or lost orders, but for the most part, these are for items boarded outside the pre-order. The information crew get on their mobile device is pretty accurate. When guests are upgraded or when they switch flights, orders can get orphaned. Guests are advised their meal does not follow them, and told to place the order again when within the window.”

But what about the implications for airline caterers? “Pre-order does introduce another level of complexity for caterers as they need to be able to respond to possible shifts in demand closer to departure. Allowing three weeks to order and making sure the options are part of a standard set of menus helps mitigate the challenges,” says Rodriguez.

Menu choices

In March American Airlines expanded its pre-ordered meal service to include premium cabins on American Eagle flights. Main cabin passengers have been able to pre-order meals since 2017 but this move added the service to a further 300 daily flights. American is also the only U.S. carrier to offer a pre-ordered meal service in premium cabins on both mainline and regional flights (of 900 miles or more) with nearly 1,900 daily flights now eligible. American Eagle choices include charcuterie plate, Tex-Mex salad, club sandwich, loaded bagels and croissants. Flagship First and Flagship Business passengers can pre-order a chicken cobb entrée salad on flights from the U.S. to Europe and South America, and a charcuterie plate on flights back to the U.S. Menus are designed in partnership with the James Beard Foundation, working with its award-winning chefs.

The airline also collaborates with Zoë’s Kitchen for its new main cabin buy-on-board programme on flights longer than 1,100 miles. The programme allows customers to pre-order their meal choice from 30 days up to 24 hours before departure, and payment is taken for the item during the flight.

Flight attendants played a critical role at a menu workshop, where they joined the food & beverage team to review the menu options and helped inspire items such as the chicken lentil salad shaker jar, chickpea Waldorf salad wrap and hummus box and raspberry chipotle turkey sandwich — as well as new breakfast and snack items.

Great expectations

Pre-ordering popularity brings a wealth of useful data with it which in turn helps predict the meal choices for those who do not pre-order. Additionally, the data reveals food trends and which dishes are selling well (or not). This, in turn, can assist with future menu planning.

Pre-order is something of a win, win. Better for the airline, better for the passenger but there are still only a handful of legacy airlines offering it in Economy. Passengers flying Qantas are offered a Menu Select programme from seven days up to 12 hours before departure, with additional meal choices offered that are not available during the flight. And passengers flying on Malaysia Airlines from Kuala Lumpar to London and Australia can also take advantage of a similar service.

The personalisation of inflight meal services is likely to be a real battleground for airlines going forward. Customers today, used to apps and infinite choice elsewhere in their lives, want to feel in control of their experience – fail to meet those expectations and they will quickly find a carrier
that does.