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COVID’s Next Casualty: No More Three Course Meals in the Air
Last week, American Airlines confirmed reports about cutting some in-flight services.
The trigger was a demand by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) to reduce onboard food and beverage service:
“Here’s what the union demanded in a memo last week, ‘APFA proposals include serving entreés with salad/soup/appetizers in premium cabins when possible and reducing main cabin beverage services on domestic and IPD flights. We have asked that these reductions in service be implemented immediately.’”
And indeed, American Airlines confirmed it was making changes, even if temporarily:
“Together with APFA, we have decided to temporarily modify some onboard service to limit customer touchpoints. As we have throughout the pandemic, we will continue to assess ways to thoughtfully return the onboard dining services customers are asking for while keeping safety front and center.”
If you’ve taken a flight any time over the last ten years, you’re probably wondering “Service cuts? What service?” Some people are already extremely critical, and anticipate that these service cuts are going to be as “temporary” as most have been in the past: once removed, they are never restored.
As we usually do, let’s take a deeper dive and try to understand why airlines (since I am sure AA is only the first and others will soon follow) are pushing for this, and why now?
First, let’s look at what is really changing: From now on there will be only one drink service in economy (main cabin), and all meal courses will be served at once in business and first class (premium cabin), although I must admit that I shudder when using the term ‘courses’ to describe airplane food.
So clearly, these are not major changes. So what prompted this discussion?
This is, of course, both related and completely unrelated to COVID at the same time.
Since the request comes from the flight attendants’ union, in an effort to reduce the number of interactions they have with passengers (as a way to reduce COVID exposure), the actual, formal reason is definitely related to COVID.
But we can easily drill holes in the argument claiming that this is the main reason.
First, airlines have been claiming for quite some time, that planes are very safe. So they are safe for passengers, safe for meal service, but not one that involves multiple courses? Seems a little weak.
Second, I am pretty sure this is not the first time some union requests to make concessions in service. Is the airline opening the door to other requests? What’s next? Not serving bad coffee (albeit that would be a valid request in my book)?
All this brings me to the second reason why I think COVID is very much related to this demand by the APFA. In fear of becoming boring or sounding cliché, once again, it has largely to do with the labor shortage that currently plagues the economy.
When there is a labor shortage, firms need to be more attentive to their employees. My impression is that being a flight attendant, while not as glamorous as it used to be, is still a fairly coveted job (until the COVID outbreak). With COVID, working from home is not an option for a flight attendant, and in general, travel is much more complicated and risky. While other jobs can offer their employees various perks, for airlines, the only way to do this is by making concessions, which will inevitably cut into the service.
But the reason I think the decision to cut services is not entirely related to COVID is that, like many other things, COVID is just the catalyst, the accelerator, for rethinking many things that have been idle for too long.
I think airlines saw an opportunity to simplify and reduce some of their expenses, since reducing food service and the number of drinks will lower costs.
But reducing food service will also reduce delays. How so?
I have been on several flights that were delayed because they were waiting for the catering service. Reducing any step in a system with multiple stakeholders will improve on-time performance.
On the other hand, this cost-cutting is done on the backdrop of a decline in business travel, since more people are working from home and Zoom has become a viable alternative to meeting in person. It’s not that all premium class is business travel or that all business travel flies premium, but they are not mutually exclusive.
According to the same article from The Economist, for major airlines such as Lufthansa and Air France-KLM, 25-30% of revenues come from premium class passengers: 10% of tickets, 40% of revenues, and 80% of profits. The willingness to pay for these premium cabin tickets is much higher among business travelers. As the number of business travelers declines, so does the willingness to pay, and with that comes the necessity to cut costs.
Premium Cabin Food Service
Personally, I have never understood why airlines spend the amount of time and money they do to offer meals in premium cabins. The food is not good, and definitely not worth its money.
So why do airlines still offer it?
Some of it is historical: this is the way it has always been. In fact, many years ago, meal service was an important aspect of the flight, for all classes. Over time, this has been diminished and most flights serve food that you would be embarrassed to serve to anyone on the ground. But the premium classes maintained the semblance of old school flights, where you are treated like a human, and people attend to you. So it’s more of a historical artifact rather than a real service necessity.
Competitive pressure: some airlines compete on the quality of their wine or coffee. A few years ago, I flew with Austrian Airlines, and the quality of their coffee menu (yes, they had a coffee menu) was better than the coffee I can get at most US cafes. But it was still much worse than what you can find if you are a coffee aficionado like me. In other words, some airlines view drinks or food as an important feature of their service differentiation, primarily for frequent flyers who have multiple choices.
Finally, it's a good way to control what type of food lands onboard: Very few things are worse than a passenger bringing a Big Mac or a Subway along for the ride, so offering food ensures that everyone gets the same mediocre, yet not offensive food. People may still bring food, and many do, but it’s less common in the premium cabin. It’s also a good way to force people to remain seated. Airlines don’t like people standing or walking (since most accidents in the air happen from passengers pulling out bags and dropping them on other passengers), so they like the idea of people staying put!
To summarize, I think some of these food services are redundant at this point —relics of the past when flying was a luxury and the flight itself was half the destination. We are no longer there, and it's better to question every part of it.
I tried to find data to support or refute any of these claims, but unfortunately, data is scarce, so I can only rely on what I observe.
When I travel for business, I also fly business. And I do so because it gives me more space to work, and allows me to sleep before a full day of meetings. But I don’t fly business for the food, and definitely not for the three-course meal (which, in my opinion, is a complete waste of everyone's time).
So I agree that airlines should cut costs on food service and invest in offering a better work environment while flying. Invest in better Wi-Fi, in a better sleeping environment for premium cabins, and in making the flight more pleasant or more productive. Maybe even offer “pods” that passengers can use for private meetings while flying (like those offered by WeWork has) or to join a conference call.
Over the last decade, many airlines have upgraded their premium cabins to feature more private seating. For example, airlines like Delta and Qatar have added business class “suites” with a closing door, offering more privacy.
During COVID, these business class seats are obviously becoming even more attractive given the level of protection they offer.
And for food? Outsource to DoorDash or UberEAts. In the same way many airlines now rely on passengers’ smartphones or tablets for entertainment, they should rely on DoorDash or UberEats for food service. They could enlist a limited number of restaurants, that passengers can order from before the flight, and have the food delivered at the gate/terminal. Everyone will be better off.
Just as with supply chains, COVID is forcing us to make changes. Some are temporary, some are painful, but the majority are forcing us to think about why we really do certain things, and whether we should continue doing them the way we do. And that’s good!
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