Indian palate is difficult to please and no matter what is served up, the expectations are always high. It is not uncommon that passengers have taken to social media to express their displeasure on the food quality, often comparing with some five-star restaurant meals, realising little that the ticket they paid for is at par with the five-star meals!
Half a decade ago, airlines were competing to expand the menu offerings and pack the contents innovatively. IndiGo was at the forefront with quirky branding – with sandwich packing being branded as Airwich or Tiffin and the subs being branded as yellow submarines.
Jet Airways came up with Krispy Kreme donuts as part of the meals and GoAir tied up with Café Coffee Day for their meal offerings. While the branding continues, the menu has made a hasty retreat in the last few quarters. From having large offerings of fresh products to having a large offering of ready to eat products – the fresh food options for travelers are diminishing rapidly.
The last two years have also been characterised by financial challenges for the airlines in India. Air India has been in perpetual turnaround mode and the government couldn’t find suitors for its sale. Jet Airways was surviving from income generated from the sale of Jet Privilege – its loyalty program and the land in Bandra Kurla complex, while SpiceJet was just about recuperating from its near death at the end of 2014. The delay in deliveries of the A320neos led to reduced income from Sale & Leaseback for IndiGo and GoAir. All this coincided with the increase in fuel price which put further pressure on the airlines, already operating on a wafer-thin margin.
Air India stopped serving non-vegetarian food in Economy class in the second half of 2017. Jet Airways and Vistara joined in with variations to the food offerings in 2018 with both airlines offering a fare class where meals are excluded from ticket prices. The airlines had to cut costs somewhere and with least impact. What better way than food where the impact is multi fold! You save by cutting food and earn by selling food – all at the same time.
Passenger choice is hard to decode. Not all travellers add their meal preference at the time of booking or before the flight. Add to that the huge number of passengers who decide their meal preference on the go – depending on what is on offer. People can turn non-vegetarian for Butter Chicken and a hardcore non-veg eater can turn vegetarian for Pav Bhaji. While the person eager to have a non-vegetarian meal will eat a veg meal under protest if the crew runs out of meals, the reverse could be a major cause of altercation between the passenger and the crew midair and a full-blown escalation when back on ground.
Airlines spend anything between Rs 200 and Rs 750 for a meal being dished out to passengers. Not all the contents that you see in your tray (or you used to see in your tray!) are sourced together from the catering vendor. Some might be purchased separately, stored with the vendor or at another location and then packaged with the meal tray. Other may be freshly prepared.
For meals to be dished out, full service carriers must carry a lot more meals than the passengers on board to cater to the choice. While this is done with help of analytics, the data is consistently inconsistent!
Move to low-cost carriers, the choice is even complex. A lot of sandwiches and other freshly (sometimes questionable!) made products being uplifted at catering stations and yet chances of being run out of a particular sandwich because the passengers in the previous flight wanted most of them? Carrying that extra percentage leads to a lot of wastage.
While estimates are hard to come by and official data is missing, news reports indicated that EasyJet was throwing away 800,000 fresh food items annually, which cost millions of dollars. All carriers in India put together are the size of Easy Jet and with two different geographies and business types, they cannot be compared, but it is a good indicator and by any standards the amounts are huge. For full service carriers, these are from their planned meals, but for low cost carriers – this is from their anticipated sales.
That’s where airlines have moved now. A glance at the menu card of IndiGo, SpiceJet, GoAir, Jet Airways and Vistara shows the increasing trend of having rehydrated ready to eat food or dry snacks on the menu. From multiple sandwiches and rolls on offer, IndiGo is down to two each in veg and non-veg section the menu. The rest? Poha, Upma, Biryani and Noodles. SpiceJet on the other hand is still touting for its hot meals. But the catch? The differential pricing.
If booked before the flight, the meals are anywhere between Rs 60 and Rs 85 cheaper than the rate at which they are sold during the flight. The small differential which could help it recover the losses if the meal must be thrown. SpiceJet also has a menu which is for pre-booked orders only!
The assortment is similar for GoAir, the third major low-cost carrier in the country. So, while fresh food has reduced, the menu is not reduced – so what is making it to the menu? Cup noodles! Nachos, Chips, Cookies, Dry fruits! Everything which has a longer shelf life and can be sold over a longer duration than say two days of a sandwich.
Jet Airways, which recently launched its Jet Bistro service, has one wrap and one sandwich each in vegetarian and non-vegetarian menu with the rest being ready to eat options, while Vistara – the airline promoting itself with good and sumptuous food offering only ready to eat and packed food options for its fare class which comes without the complementary meals.
While every traveller might list good food as his expectation from a flight, not many would want to walk that extra mile and pay up for the food. The short duration of the flight, budget conscious traveller who has already spent a lot on the ticket and the corporate traveler well aware that his meal is taken care by the airline are some of the reasons why this may not change from here on.
But then again, in a country where satisfying hunger is a serious problem, avoiding food wastage is a welcome step. And when that comes with that extra penny being saved by the airline in an environment of loss or wafer-thin profits, the food offerings are unlikely to change.
Ameya Joshi is founder of aviation analysis blog NetworkThoughts.