April 15, 2024

Sustainability snapshot

Earlier this year Onboard Hospitality launched its inaugural Sustainability Sentiment Survey, as part of our ongoing Get Onboard Now! Campaign, here Julie Baxter and Roger Williams analyse the results

Compiled in association with our Planet Action Group, seven quick survey questions looked to provide clear benchmarking of where buyers and suppliers are now in their sustainability journey, and where they hope to go next.

We asked our readers to assess their current status, rank the importance of potential changes in activities, and indicate timescales for future improvements. Questions targeted both onboard service and logistics and answers were anonymous. The topics covered included staff, onboard service, supply chains, barriers to progress and expected speed of implementation.

Clear goals

The results are now in and we can start with some good news. Over 95% of airlines and suppliers who responded said their company has clear sustainability goals. However, less than a quarter thought 80% or more of their company colleagues understood those goals, or their role in achieving them. More worryingly, nearly half thought this internal understanding was below 40%. 

Flying into action

While the dramatic decrease in revenues and budgets inevitably led to some projects being curtailed, as our industry springs into action again, sustainability is back on the agenda. Some 79% of respondents said they aimed to make a significant impact on sustainability within the cabin in the next 18 months.

Asked to rank their sustainability priorities, the top three elements cited were waste management (70%), recycling systems (65%) and carbon reduction (61%). A fifth were also prioritising closed loop systems as a top three priority. Improved composting facilities had the lowest priority ranking.

Looking at how the supply chain could support their sustainability goals, 79% put onboard food and beverage products in their top three priorities for change, with over half saying this offered the single greatest opportunity for improvement.

We also asked which elements of the passenger experience they saw had most potential for sustainable change. A third ranked amenity kits as top, and two thirds had amenity kits in their top three targets for actioning. 

With regards to the barriers preventing sustainability change, unsurprisingly cost, regulations and the complexities of the supply chain were ranked as the top three barriers (in that order).

On the rails

For rail caterers, reduction in waste came way out on top (90%), with particular focus on accuracy of ordering to reduce primary food waste, as well as reducing the volumes of single use disposables / plastics and packaging. Carbon/energy reduction (75%) and refining recycling systems (60%) were also in the top three priorities including removing unnecessary recycling caused by loading and reloading.

Going digital

To advance the sustainability of their supply chains in the long term, rail operators identified that improving passenger volume prediction and ordering processes were key (e.g. technology linking orders to reservation systems, etc.); followed by changes in the types of food and beverage products offered onboard and the ways in which they are sold (e.g. pre-order, click & collect, at-seat delivery and perhaps even vending). Crew processes and product logistics were a lower priority as they would naturally evolve as a result of other changes. 


Beverages – especially refillable cups / water fountains and ensuring free trade / organic choices were highlighted, while sustainable initiatives on train interiors are likely to include improved social areas and service facilities to ensure a more intuitive relationship with customer. Textiles were a lower priority.

Costs & Comms

Again initial investment was the biggest barrier to change for rail operators, but this was second only to hygiene legislation/local regulations creating complexities in the supply chain. Lack of expertise and employee buy-in was not regarded an issue, with wide-spread training ongoing, but only a third said at least 60% of staff were well informed on sustainability goals and their role in achieving them, so there is still work to be done. 

However, on a very positive note, 80% of railway respondents saw significant sustainability improvements likely within two years, with the remaining 20% within 2-5 years.

Brighter future

The message seems clear. While costs and regulation may make change challenging, key decision-makers are prioritising sustainability and looking for answers. Attention is definitely turning to eco amenities and sustainable food and beverage solutions, with buyers actively seeking out innovations to help. 

Suppliers looking to support that change have an open opportunity to deliver their innovations to an attentive market and must maintain their momentum to help deliver a brighter future for us all. It will be interesting to see the results when this survey is repeated in a year from now.

For rail catering research and other projects contact roger@thecateringexplorer.com