By Jo Austin

As personalised nutrition becomes increasingly mainstream, Jo Austin asks the experts how airlines, rail operators and caterers can prepare for the reinvention of Special Meals

In a recent flight from Dublin catered by dnata, 60% of passengers onboard had requested a special meal. Increasingly it seems everyone has their own ‘special’ lifestyle food regime and businesses are battling to keep up. Judging by my supermarket account, the retail world is onto this, monitoring my choices and tailoring my offers to reflect my eating habits. Even my dog’s diet is attracting rewards. But what about when I travel? I have yet to see this data-science impact the inflight catering offer.

Mariette Abrahams, nutrition business consultant and founder of MA Consulting in Portugal, believes it is only a matter of time before personal eating habits really come to the fore. She says: “The personalised nutrition industry has been growing at an incredible pace over the last two years and it is predicted to enjoy double digit growth for some years to come.

It is about understanding the consumer and ensuring that the right product is available to them at the right time. It involves understanding their food, emotional, physical and health goals as well as their motivations for attaining them. The only way this can be achieved is by understanding how consumers think, how they behave and what they actually choose, using real-time data as well as data-science which will show the trends, the influences, and individual responses.”

Choices, choices

Special meals are well established within airline catering and pre-ordering for these is very much the norm. And in the world of private jets this has already gone a step further with every meal loaded potentially tailored to the exact requirements of each premium passenger. Says Marc Warde, free-from airline consultant: “Technology makes it possible for every passenger to have what they want and deserve so long as they are willing to pay and the airline is willing to embrace change and accommodate more choice. For some it will be ordering a meal from their favourite restaurant to be served onboard the flight, for others it will be a dietary requirement or lifestyle choice.”

Warde’s business is based around special meals of a non-religious nature, meeting passengers’ allergy and dietary needs. With so much of the population now paying real attention to what they eat, passengers increasingly expect the option to have what they need and want. Food allergies are not a fad and are here to stay. If anything, people’s awareness is growing so demand is greater than ever, he insists.

Steve Walpole, head of food, Ugo Food and consultant chef, believes it’s time to rename special meals. He says: ”More and more people understand diet is important but don’t know how to eat well so get hooked on a fad or a diet scheme. Special Meals should be renamed ‘personalised meals’ and need to reflect passenger lifestyles and allergies and the cross-over between religion, health and lifestyle.

“Airlines are waking up a little bit to the vegan diet – and in fact some airlines are ahead of supermarkets in the choices they offer – but these can be expensive. They are also working to improve pre- and post-flight options in their airport lounges. British Airways’ Flight Wellbeing programme is ahead of the game – offering lighter options and less-refined products, but at the end of the day airlines are cash driven. On low-cost carriers most people tend to buy their meals at the airport before boarding as there is a wider selection and a less processed, premium product.”

Changes in the U.S.

Walpole adds: “In the U.S. passengers have historically had poor food choice onboard but this is really showing improvement in premium classes. There are more health issues and free-from demands in the U.S. now and people are very quick to change their diets and follow flash trends on social media i.e: “Gwyneth Paltrow is not eating anything green this week – so neither will I.”

As part of Delta’s strong focus on personalising the onboard experience, Delta One passengers flying from the U.S. to Europe are now able to choose their first meal in advance. Launched in June, plans are already underway to extend this ‘pick your plate’ service to Asian and Australian routes following strong customer feedback.

Lisa Bauer, Delta’s vice president onboard services, says: “We want to make dining at 30,000 feet feel like dining at a favourite restaurant and giving customers the ability to choose their meal in advance is a big part of that. It speeds up the process for our flight attendants too, giving them more time to spend with customers.”

Eligible Delta passengers receive an email three days prior to their flight asking them to choose from options which include chef-curated meals by Linton Hopkins out of Atlanta; from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group out of New York, and chef duo Jon Shook and Vinny Dotol out of L.A.

Digital support

As the digitalisation of the passenger journey becomes more enhanced, with integration into catering production and logistic systems, the process of pre-ordering all products and meals within hours of departure is rapidly becoming the ‘norm’. Launched in May, Retail inMotion’s crew food app already gives crew members the chance to choose and order the meals they want to eat onboard right up to the last hour before a flight.

Stefan Patermann, ceo Retail inMotion says: “This is another step in our strategy of building a platform to digitalise the passenger, crew and product journey.”

Users browse meals available and can choose the date and flight they want the meal delivered to. They pay with their credit or debit card. When their flight is over, they can rate their meal experience, from delivery and presentation to the taste of the food.
In the back-office of the app, programme administrators can easily and intuitively manage food categories, products, prices, availability and more. Any changes made in the backend are applied to the app in real-time, so that they are available straight away for the crew.

The app administrators can monitor the whole operational process and as it can link into multiple catering companies, it can potentially serve both crew and passengers through new digital touchpoints.

Marc Warde adds: “Pre-order is a long-established discipline within airlines for special meals and as an option in First and Business but the trend towards personalisation means this is changing, broadening the opportunity. Many airlines have embraced technology that makes pre-ordering possible wherever you sit on the aircraft, but like most things it does of course come at a price.

“Special meals have always been a pre-reserved entitlement that passengers can pre-order before they board but they are not personalised to the individual passenger as yet, although this is entirely possible with modern software.

“Historically some special meals have been nothing short of appalling, so getting it right is reputationally important for airlines. The caveat that most airlines use of: ‘may contain traces of the allergy you are trying to avoid’ no longer cuts the mustard!”
Laura Friedrichs of leading German airline caterer, Frankenberg, is tailoring quality frozen meals to meet increased demand for personalised nutrition. She says: “Over five percent of our airline meals are special meals and this continues to rise. These passengers place a high importance on their nutrition and are very likely to comment on the meals on social media so airlines are beginning to pay more attention to the offer in this category.

“We offer nearly all special meal codes and our product development kitchen is constantly working on new meals, in cooperation with international and celebrity chefs, to reflect food trends and ensure authentic and tasty recipes in all the categories.

“For many airlines we produce only-halal meals but we also respond to requests for vegan/vegetarian dishes, lacto-free, gluten-free, Asian, Hindu meals, diabetic and low fat or low salt.”

Getting it right

Assuming the choices are right, the key to meeting personalised demand will be the technology for pre-ordering. Nik Loukas, of Inflightfeed, points to a couple of airlines getting it right. “Finnair has always been innovative with its meal plans and its Nordic Bistro pre-order service is free for Business passengers. There is also a pre-order, buy-on-board service for Economy which includes savoury sandwiches and salads as well as a dedicated kids’ meal. The Sky Bistro allows passengers to mix and match their meal options – selecting choices (to buy) that meet their needs or pre-ordering from a range of nearly 20 special meal categories.”

Turkish Airlines features a ‘fly good, feel good’ campaign and Air Europa has focused on healthy inflight concepts coupled with some fantastic design elements too. “Not only is it great to look at, but it’s also very tasty,” says Loukas.

In response to the increasing number of passengers with food allergies, especially children, All Nippon Airways (ANA) introduced a new ‘Seven Allergen-Free Child Meal’ this year made free from seven common allergens including wheat, buckwheat, dairy products, eggs, peanuts, shrimp and crabs.

ANA also has a “Seven Allergen-Free Meal” and a “27 Allergen-Free Meal” for adults, and a “27 Allergen-Free Baby Meal,” which is for infants aged under two. For flights departing from Japan, orders are accepted up to 24 hours before departure, for those going to Japan, up to 48 hours.

Creating a range of excellent-quality meal choices, which meet numerous special meal requirements will be the practical solution to this growing challenge.

Stephen Templeton, global head of culinary at dnata, says: “For too long airlines have had this trend on the back burner and seen it as a nuisance. We have to create libraries of dishes that work, and present special meals so they look as good as any other meal served onboard.”

Food labelling

For those who can’t or don’t pre-order, precise food labelling on inflight products has become vital.

Walpole says: “Historically airline food has been quite processed and we have to make sure that the information on allergies and calories is available because once you are on an aircraft you have to eat what’s onboard, or nothing. Gone are the days of eating food just to fill up. Passengers want options and caterers must consider balancing less sugar, less fat and more wholegrain. Most passengers have a food regime they want to stick to and regular travellers need to combat bad food.”

Friedrichs adds: “We are able to fully label products, not only the allergen information but also with full nutritional input, and this is more and more important for personalised nutrition. It gives the passenger full control of what they are eating and allows them to plan their daily calorie and nutritional input.”

Meeting every individual’s personalised nutrition preference onboard clearly has its challenges but as investment in data-analytics increases and tech-savvy travellers increasingly look online to plan every element of their journey, it’s clear selecting a ‘special’ meal will increasingly become the norm. •