Flying is not eco-friendly. We all know that. The aviation industry accounts for approximately 2% of the world’s emissions, and has committed to achieve net zero by 2050. The increasingly negative effects of climate change, highlighted by COP27 and COP15, have made decarbonisation a top priority for many airlines.

Demand is sky-rocketing and demand reduction clearly is not part of the answer – even if some passengers consider reducing their number of trips and ramping up pressure on the sector to reduce carbon emissions. This is partly why IATA member airlines have committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions. This pledge brings air transport in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming.

The combined impact of different emission reduction initiatives, such as faster adoption of innovative aircraft technologies and increased production and adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), on top of essential waste reduction measures, are at the very center to achieve these critical goals.

Talking about wast(ag)e, are passengers even actually aware that they each generate (on average) 1,43 kg of cabin waste per each single flight? Do they have any clue of what happens to it post-flight? Pre-pandemic, the airline industry generated up to 5.7 million tonnes of cabin waste – a huge figure –  which cost the sector US$ 927 million (IATA).

IATA research indicates that over 20% of cabin waste comprises untouched food and drink and, with in-flight catering market size estimated at almost $16 billion in 2023, represents a significant incentive to improve planning and logistics. There is little doubt that food waste is emerging as a global issue with up to one third (1.3 billion tonnes) lost or wasted each year.

This has been recognised in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a specific target to cut global food waste per capita in half by 2030. Airlines and their service providers must work collaboratively with regulators to ensure that aviation makes a positive contribution to this SDG target by avoiding landfill and creating transparency among waste management companies.

But –  and this is a pivotal issue – their interest is definitely NOT to reduce the amount of waste. They mostly operate under the radar, charge on volume (while costs are hidden in the P&L) and often are not even part of the discussion.

However, passenger concerns regarding airline waste practices are mounting and the sector is being challenged to embrace the circular economy. Airlines have struggled to implement coherent cabin waste reuse and recycling programs. The challenging nature of flight operations including short turn- around times, shortage of space in the cabin, lack of clarity on waste costs and regulatory restrictions placed on catering waste from international flights by many countries, compounds this waste problem.

The fact is that the complimentary catering model has not effectively changed since the 1970’s. It is both inefficient and unsustainable. It is costly and wasteful for the airline, obsolete for the passenger and exhausting the planet.

Shouldn’t we start with scrutiny of what is flying today and if all of it is really needed?

Do passengers on short-haul flights actually need more than just a nice coffee or drink and nibble? Will they cater themselves before take-off at the airport? Or will they incrementally bring food and beverages from airport retailers onboard?

For long-haul travel, where passengers spend more time onboard and will need to drink and eat, the challenge is of a different scale but strongly depends on the carrier.

Some leading global airlines, like Japan Airlines, are offering a Skip-your-Meal option, whilst others, like Saudia and Qantas, believe their passengers have a certain level of expectations for their onboard experience for which they pay a premium.

With the accelerated adoption of digitization, pre-flight passenger engagement has become widely accustomed. So why not simply extend its capabilities to massively reduce what is being loaded? Passengers can absolutely make a difference by pre-ordering and pre-selecting meals, as they can do with Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Hainan, Delta, Qatar Airways, Turkish and Virgin Atlantic.

The IN.Bowl is a game-changing catering product that ticks all the boxes – better quality, trayless, more efficient, more sustainable

In-flight, an AI-enabled food waste tracking system can generate data on passenger consumption habits and be used to adjust menus, also resulting in food waste reduction. It’s there to be used.

The reality is that we urgently need to tackle the waste problem by digitization and far greater collaboration at an accelerated pace. And we need to address the challenge for airlines to reconcile sustainability and profitability. By increasing long-term viability through sustainability initiatives, airlines will grow their bottom line.

About Anne De Hauw: 

Anne is the Founder of IN Air Travel Experience, a boutique Customer Experience advisory and innovation accelerator for air travel, with a strong focus on ESG. Her key objective is to design and deliver transformative customer experiences for airlines that create positive impact and future-proof their business.

Anne is a highly accomplished senior executive with over 20 years experience and a proven track record in the airline industry. Throughout her executive career, she has held key corporate leadership roles – most recently as Vice President Innovation and Customer Experience at global caterer Gategroup and as a member of the Board of Directors of Servair.

Anne is also the driving force behind the recently established susta.IN, an alliance between IN Air Travel Experience, Antos Inc and 2030 Markets, to bring their combined expertise in resource recovery, circular economy and energy transition.

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Peter Marshall

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