It has become a punchline: the unassuming airline trolley creaking down the aisle, the stewards asking passengers, “chicken or beef?” But inside, meal trays are going through serious innovation, driven by the perennial challenge faced by airlines everywhere: how to become more efficient – and profitable – in the limited space of an airline cabin.
It’s a quest where even the smallest change can have significant effect. One well-known story tells how American Airlines saved USD40,000 annually by removing one olive from each and every first-class salad. Whether it’s true or not, there’s no doubt that this kind of thinking can both create savings for airlines and genuinely improve the passenger experience – and even let us keep our olives.
Scale is the operative concept here. One change at one seat replicated across a fleet can save an airline millions. One tray from Gate Gourmet lets airlines not just save but actually generate money. The innovation began when Filip Fransen, head of design at the Singapore branch of Potmstudios, Gate Gourmet’s in-house design division, said of legacy meal-tray designs, “That’s a lot of air not being used.”
Unused air? Fransen is referring here to the space on the trays reserved for main courses. Because meals must be heated prior to serving, they are stored separately from the trays, which means that, on every tray loaded into every cart since inflight meals began, there has been empty space. This unused air takes up space in carts, which take up space in galley units, which deprive airlines of a few more seats.
“How can we improve the space usage?” That was the question. The solution was simple: create a groove in the middle of each tray to allow the unused part to be tucked under and interlocked with the tray next to it.
Fransen’s Lean-on-Me tray, as it’s called, takes up half the space and requires half as many trolleys as its predecessors. Thomson Airways, the first airline to use it, used the extra space to carry more duty free.
Air New Zealand (ANZ) was considering doing away with meals in favour of less space-consuming snack boxes when Lean-on-Me captured its attention. The carrier deployed the tray on its trans-Tasman network, a series of popular but mainly leisure routes.
Gate Gourmet says the concept let ANZ do away with a galley unit and add six seats, adding millions of dollars of revenue a year while maintaining a higher service standard. “A tray service is generally a better perception for the passenger,” Fransen says.
Another division of Gate Gourmet thought the concept could be extended to its offsite meal division. Rental space around airports is notoriously expensive, which pushes caterers to assemble meals further afield.
Trucking in standard meals isn’t feasible, but Gate Gourmet saw an opportunity for an emerging kind of meal, one made up of food with long shelf lives alongside single perishable items like muffins or sandwiches.
Gate Gourmet realised that the perishable item could be trucked directly to the airport catering facility and chilled while the long shelf-life items could be assembled offsite on trays, packaged in boxes and transferred to the airport. Cabin crew then take the trays from the boxes and add the perishable items.
This rotable version of Lean-on-Me allows meal trays to be stored efficiently in boxes and allows airlines to offer meals that are more substantial than just a snack but cheaper than traditional full meals.
Although deployed on other airlines first, the product saw great success with Virgin Australia upon its introduction in 2011.
The carrier was adopting a hybrid business and service model, using its low-cost origins (it was founded as Virgin Blue) to compete against Qantas in Australia’s highly profitable domestic market. Qantas offered hot meals but Virgin was wary of letting costs creep into its business model and take away its cost advantage.
The rotable Lean-on-Me tray in boxes proved to be a fitting solution. Meals would only be distributed to passengers who purchased the more expensive flexible tickets favoured by the corporate market. Given the fluidity of corporate travel schedules and tendency for last-minute changes, Virgin and Gate Gourmet could not guarantee a traditional meal to every passenger with a flexible ticket; over-stocking carried the risk of waste. Virgin also wanted to compete with the LCC sector and have a stripped-down economy product without frills like meals, eliminating the need for a meal at every seat.
The rotable and boxed version of Lean-on-Me took away the risk. Unused meals could be re-used since there was no hot course. Storing the trays in boxes meant caterers could fine-tune the number of trays to be loaded per flight. Gate Gourmet even equipped its ground staff with iPads that sync every five minutes to load sheets listing how many flexi-fare passengers have checked in. Upon pulling up to the aircraft, the staff could do as real-time catering as the industry gets.
“By using this live data, you can have a more rational supply and you don’t need any extra buffer. So you don’t need extra or unnecessary waste,” Fransen says. The boxes storing the trays double as garbage bins, eliminating the need for separate garbage trolleys.
One inefficiency is that the boxes have to be loaded into heavy trolleys, as otherwise the boxes – mere cardboard – must be certified as primary storage items.
The catering decision was one of many carefully plotted moves by Virgin Australia to bring service up without blowing out costs; in its most recent financial figures, its cost base rose 2.4 per cent, below inflation of three per cent.
Another tray innovation is the Butterfly, a box in which the sides of the hinge are sculpted inwards, allowing the top to lie flat and passengers to separate out meal contents across the two sides. When compacted, the box makes the most of trolley space. There is also the Tapas Tray, in which multiple food items are presented on a single tray. As the food doesn’t reach maximum height, cutlery is stored underneath the tray and slides out to maximise horizontal space in the trolley.
Other innovations were focused on the more-traditional aim of saving money, but still managed to enhance passenger experience. Take tray-liners, for instance. While these seem innocuous, the scale of the waste they create adds up: Gate Gourmet calculates that if each tray met with a weight of five grams, an airline using 40,000 trays with a standard shelf life of 150 rotations will save 30 tonnes of weight, with of course the associated fuel savings.
Gate Gourmet found a way to apply a non-skid adhesive to trays that allows for a more intricate design to be printed on the base; trays for Delta Air Lines have a design that looks like wood.
CLEAN AND GREEN
Those trying to “green” airline catering face myriad challenges. One such challenge is the widespread local regulation to incinerate international waste. Another is that sustainable materials, such as cutlery made from sugarcane, are heavier and more expensive than plastic alternatives. “The whole eco- friendly story in materials is very complex,” Fransen says. “Weight and space is the best thing you can improve to be more eco.”
Some airlines – notably those in the Asia-Pacific region – have had the luxury of being able to invest in designs that better reflect their brands. “Here, we focus on styling and try to reduce the weight a little bit, but it’s really about bringing the brand values of an airline into a design,” Fransen says.
But this can have mixed blessings. Gate Gourmet used a two-tone injection process to create plastic dishes for Jet Airways in which one colour appears to float within the plastic. Passenger response was a double-edged sword, Fransen remembers: “They got stolen so much [the airline] wanted an uglier version.”
There are so many jokes at the expense of airline catering, it may come as a surprise to learn that an inflight meal service item can create an overwhelmingly positive response, too.
In 2000, Virgin Atlantic introduced a set of salt and pepper shakers shaped like propeller aircraft that were so routinely stolen that the airline played into the joke and stamped the bottom of the shakers with the phrase “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic”.
Virgin this year introduced a new, less eye-catching version and claims cabin crew make a point of ensuring that every shaker is returned with every tray. Like imitation, theft can be the sincerest form of flattery, jokes Fransen. “The more items get stolen, the more pride we take in our design.”