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Flight caterers need to be agile as airlines struggle: expert

Publication Date : 29-10-2012


As airlines face one crisis to another, services associated with them, such as flight catering services, will also be affected and their growth made more challenging with the bleak outlook on the global economy.

“Be prepared for the unexpected, that means being agile,” said Peter Jones, a professor of hospitality management at the University of Surrey.

“Over the last 10 years, caterers have moved towards the idea of lean assembly, which is linked to the just-in-time operations of the automotive industry,” said Jones who was invited by Brahim's Holdings Bhd, a food and beverage manufacturer as well as flight caterer, to a talk on “Issues and Challenges in Airline Catering” in Kuala Lumpur recently.

Over the past decade, terrorism, war, global economic and financial crises, climate change and its impact on food availability, had affected the flight catering industry.

According to a study by Deloitte, apart from operational agility, the challenges affecting industry growth included customer reach, cost competitiveness and shareholder confidence. Jones said as more people flew and tastes as well as lifetyles changed, the idea of mass customisation had also made its presence felt in the industry although it was still in the early stages.

“There's been some mass customisation by airlines but this will be driven by social media,” he said, adding that social media, which has played a pervasive role in tastes, would be leading this change.

Jones, citing examples from cars to chocolates, said mass production and customisation has led to modularity (making components of products interchangeable) and postponement (assembling final product as late as possible or to order).

“The challenge to flight catering is lead time, that is, the time needed to prepare the uplift of the food and beverage prior to departure,” said Jones, who is said to be the world's first and only professor of travel and flight catering. Jones said the idea of ordering meals ahead of time was being tried out by some airlines, including full-service and budget ones and across the board in first, business and economy.

He said besides the operational challenges, there were also challenges posed by the supply-chain eco-system. “There are three distinct airline markets, North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific/Middle East, with different history, structure, patterns and trends,” Jones said.

He added that absolute volumes, route networks, in-house versus outsourced catering services, flight catering infrastructure and supply chains as well as airline service philosophy played a role in industry growth and performance.

Jones said there was no hard data on how much the industry generates in revenue but estimates that it could be around 8 billion to 10 billion British pounds (US$12.86 billion to 16.08 billion) with one million meals served on flights per day.

He said the International Air Transport Association expects the global airline industry to see a 1 per cent growth in net margins next year with the growth coming from budget carriers and the Asia-Pacific region.

Jones said the good news for flight caterers was that the growth would be highest in the Asia-Pacific region, which has the highest proportion of long-haul flights and where there was a tradition in catering unlike the North American market, where peanuts and cola was the industry standard.


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