Inflight Services Management – The interfaces between the airline and the service provider

Oct 10, 2012 No Comments by

Inflight Services Management – The interfaces between the airline and the service provider. – by Airline Hub Buzz, © 2007.

Introduction – The Inflight Services Industry and its main features

The ever increasing complexity in the airline industry, particularly in relation to on board

passenger services, has greatly impacted the functions of the inflight services industry on

both an operational and organisational level. Airlines need to carefully evaluate and

implement and inflight service which is commensurate and aligned with their business

model such as low cost carrier (LCC) or legacy. This implementation must satisfy and be

within the economic framework established by the carrier and at the same time meet the

expectations and requirements of the passenger.

On a merely superficial level, one may consider that inflight services are merely the

provision of food and drink on board flights. While this feature forms a major part of the

industry, upon closer assessment the inflight services viewed in its totality is much more

detailed and complex. It thus necessitates further evaluation and analysis in order to

comprehend and appreciate the multifaceted functions of the inflight services industry

and the associated relationships that emerge from these functions. An airline’s inflight

services product encompasses features such as on board entertainment (music/films),

onboard amenities, service items (forks/china) and crew catering (Elwin, 2007

). Given these complexities and the associated costs that exist for such items,

airlines need to take a concerted approach with the various industry suppliers so as to

ensure adequate planning and product specific implementation occurs.

The inflight services industry has evolved greatly since the early 1920s. At that time the

service consisted of basically tea and sandwiches – there was no provision for “hot” food

as such. During the 1930s with aircraft offering larger capacity and travelling over water,

local hotels and restaurants were contracted to provide the food and beverage service.

With the introduction of the jet services in the 1950s such as the Douglas DC-8 and

Boeing 707, dramatic changes had to be made to the on board product, most notably the

installation of galleys and container/modules allowing the opportunity for airlines to

broadly expand their onboard product .  As such the distribution model and supply chain became more complex and thus specialist suppliers were created in order to meets these changes.

Industry structure and trends for inflight catering

One of the main characteristics of the inflight services industry, particularly the flight

catering sector is that it is a truly global operation. Jones (2004) states that the industry is

present in every part of the globe and as such this has implications for how the operations

are managed. Examples of such operations are with the infrastructure at the airport

(loading/unloading of food) and given the global perspective, it is important to factor in

any local factors, such as weather, when implementing and designing the onboard

services programme.

Furthermore, Jones (2004) identifies the following issues and trends which have an

impact and must be considered in relation to onboard inflight services:

Competition: As discussed later in this paper, the low cost carriers have placed

considerable pressure on established airlines to keep costs down given that the

industry has grown considerably

Outsourcing: Where once airlines would own and operate their own catering

divisions this is now increasingly being outsourced to such companies at LSGSkychefs

and GateGourmet which are specialist inflight catering firms

Information Technology: This has allowed the airlines to gain operational and

organisation efficiencies as a direct result of taking advantage of new


Inflight Services – impacts and implications for management

In relation to the inflight catering, one key implication of critical importance for

managers that the food and beverages is supplied to the operating flight in a timely

manner and is aligned with the standards and requirements set forth by the airline. In this

perspective it is imperative that a focus is constantly maintained and reviewed with

respect to the airline-supplier relationship. Such a relationship forms a concrete foundation and can be viewed as a starting point with which to build upon the airline’s onboard product.

It is important to illustrate that whilst there is a degree of commonality between the

inflight food and beverage providers and those of equivalent providers in other industries

(Elwin, 2007 course notes) it is imperative to take note of the unique key differences that

exist and the implications associated with them. One of these is the magnitude placed on

the customer’s satisfaction and overall feedback with the airline’s onboard product. As

such, airlines should regularly conduct surveys and passenger evaluation sheets to

ascertain whether the onboard product is meeting the needs of their customers. Such

measures are important since it will allow the carrier to make any necessary

modifications to the product if there are areas which are deficient or need improving.

From a management perspective it is evident that given the high level of competition

between airlines operating in the same markets, the onboard product can be used as

source of competitive advantage and to offer a higher level of differentiation from

competitors. Hence, airlines which use their onboard services as a key marketing feature

will invest considerably in innovative onboard services, as this a key determining factor

for passengers choosing one airline over another. Surveys interviewing airline passengers

Skytrax indicated that the overall onboard product such as standard of Inflight

Entertainment System (IFE) and food/beverage are factors which strongly influence

choosing an airline ( (skytrax), 2007).

QANTAS and Singapore Airlines have invested heavily in the onboard product,

particularly for their premium cabin passengers. QANTAS has completely overhauled the

onboard amenities product for their First and Business Class passengers such as designer

label Pyjamas and toiletry kits and completely new crockery and meal service

(Masanuaskas, 2007 and, 2007). Singapore Airlines has set new benchmarks

with a completely new on board product from the food service to the IFE across all three

classes on their new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft (Gates, 2006 and,


The interfaces between the airline and the service provider

As in most industries, in order to function adequately a collaborative interaction is

required by many of the firms working in that industry. The inflight services industry is

reliant on various suppliers where the relationship between each of them is contingent on

the successful provision of inflight services by the airline.

Elwin (2007 ) states that ‘the business relationship between the airline’s

Inflight Services Division and the airline caterer is one of a very close interaction of

customer and supplier’. It is this interaction which is critical and of great importance to

both the airline and caterer since it ensures that a common understanding of the issues at

hand is reached. The airline will normally plan and design the menu in line with the

onboard services program and the caterer will need to correctly interpret and supply the

food/beverages as per the menu. In order to ensure that the communication between the

two parties is consistent and correct, the airline will normally have an inflight services

representative to monitor and if required fix any anomalies that may exist.

Technology is also considered an important and integral interface to the inflight services

industry. Gategourmet, which claims to be the world’s largest independent airline

catering and logistics provider, uses a system called Inflight Exchange (IFx). IFx acts as

communications platform for the entire supply chain and integrates with other related

systems such as the airline’s system (, 2007). Also developed by

Gategourmet is E-gatematrix used by such legacy carriers as Delta Airlines to facilitate

the ‘above the wing’ requirements of inflight services such as cleaning services and menu

planning (Higgins, 2002).

The main factors for airlines when implementing inflight food and beverage services

When an implementing an inflight food and beverage service, there are important aspects

an airline needs to consider. It needs to evaluate the class of services offered, type of

business model used as platform for its flying operations, logistics, menu cycle rotation,

special dietary requirements and food preparation and handling.

Legacy carriers can offer different classes of travel and need to customise the onboard

product commensurate with these classes. Certain airlines such as British Airways can

offer up to four classes on long haul flights from First, Club World (Business), World

Traveller Plus (Premium Economy) and World Traveller (Economy) (refer to

‘flying with us’). Such airlines would thus have a more complicated and detailed inflight

services program and as a consequence greater emphasis would be placed on the inflight

services department such as greater human capital devoted to such a division. On the

other hand, the single class ‘no frills’ airlines would have a more simplistic programme to


The onboard catering and how it is executed and provided is may also be contingent on

the type of carrier. In general carriers can be grouped as either legacy (or traditional full

service) or low-cost (LCC). Legacy carriers, particularly on long range flight will have a

requirement for more a richer selection of food products requiring prior preparation. As a

comparison the LCC’s onboard catering is largely limited to more of the pre-packaged

‘snack’ type foods – this is clearly evident if one were to peruse the onboard menus of

Jetstar and Virgin Blue (refer to and “services”). In keeping

with the LCC factor one possible consideration is that these types of products facilitate

the onboard service and decrease the turnaround time at the ground stop since high

aircraft utilisation is a strong factor for LCCs.

The disadvantage for the legacy carrier is that the LCCs operate on a much lower cost

base than the legacy. Frapin-Beaugé, Bennett and Wood (1994) state that the provision of

food can cost the carrier anywhere between 5-10% of the total fare on any journey. The

situation takes on an even more pertinent perspective in markets where LCCs and legacy

carriers compete ‘head to head’. To counteract this disadvantage, legacy carriers have

been trying to emulate the LCC model in terms of organisation and operational

efficiencies. This is most evident in the United States and Europe, where the operational

differences between LCCs and traditional full service carriers is closely narrowing.

A concrete example of this is with the in-flight product on the legacy carriers in these

countries. With a constant pressure on the legacy carriers to cut costs and remain

competitive the full in flight service once associated with the legacy is rapidly

disappearing. This is emphatically evident with the food and beverage service –American

Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Air Canada and Delta Airlines and Iberia in Europe have

introduced a “food for purchase” in flight service. Particularly in North America it is now

increasingly difficult to differentiate service levels between LCC and legacy carriers.

(source: “inflight services” section of specific airlines’ websites).

On long haul flights legacy carriers will most often offer two meal services. For these

flights it important that the passenger’s circadian patterns are taken into consideration

since obviously there will be a disruption to the normally daily routines. Research

conducted by Waterhouse, Kao, Edwards, Atkinson and Reilly (2006) discovered that on

long haul flights passengers are normally keen on receiving their first meal however for

the second meal (normally served before landing) passengers were far less receptive. In

certain instances the second meal was outright refused; this accounted for around 6% of

the respondents. This is obviously a challenge for the airlines since they will normally try

and schedule a meal aligned with the time of day, however due to time differences it may

not necessarily correspond with what the passenger actually wants and thus a mismatch is

formed. Waterhouse et al., (2006) further inform that these have implications for airlines

that wish to provide food that is acceptable to passengers and also for those providing

meals for night workers.

The selection, preparation and most important the storage of the actual food is extremely

important. There is the high risk of contamination of the food product which could

potentially lead to unfavourable situations for the airlines such as food poisoning for the

passengers. In consideration of this, airlines must take into consideration the level of

organisms presents in the food, the use of raw garnishes which contain natural organisms

and the level of cooking of the meat (Roberts, Gilbert, Nicholson, Christopher and

Dailley, 1989). In relation to meat, these authors bring forward the notion that the

requirement for airlines to have the meat served ‘pink’ requires the caterers to part cook

the food and final cooking is on board the aircraft. Such food regeneration increases the

risk of contamination due to possible mishandling.

Like any other food service industry which places the utmost importance and priority on

food preparation and hygiene, in relation to flight food catering this aspect takes on more

pervasive function. This is due to the fact that on any given day up to 9000 flights from

1000 airports need to have some form of catering and on board service (Elwin, 2007

course notes). Given that morbidity due to food transmitted illness is a significant factor

(Worsfold and Griffith, 1996) one can now appreciate how this is such an important

aspect for inflight catering.

All of these functions in relation to the catering rely quite considerably on logistics and

effective and proper coordination on all levels. McCool (1995) states that the logistics

aspect needs to be ‘flawless’ and inflight caterers cannot have the luxury of being late.

Any disruptions to the supply chain and flow as consequence of the logistical aspect

failing somewhere along the line can have significant negative consequences with the

overall operation of the flight. The implications for management when developing their

inflight services product are the logistical aspects in consultation with the flight caterer is

to realise that the distribution and ready availability of the product or service as

demanded by the customer is a critical factor. Unreliable distribution or the inability to

provide a product has the potential for long term unconstructive consequences, such as a

destabilisation of the airline-caterer relationship. Such a relationship needs strong

cohesion and cooperation in order to effectively function.

Airlines also need to consider the special dietary and religious needs of their customers

when preparing their inflight catering requirements. Specialised meals can be offered

such as:

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian


Low Purine

Low Fat

Asian Vegetarian

Meals meeting religious based criteria such as Kosher, Hindu and Muslim

Infant / Children meals

(source: Jones 2004)

Furthermore, airlines need to consider the menu cycle which needs to be changed in order

to ensure variety and in line with seasonal and produce requirements. This is particularly

important to an airline’s most frequent travellers to ensure they experience a variety of

meals and choice.

Determinations and Conclusion

One now is in a position to appreciate the implications and interactions that exist in the

Inflight Services Industry. From what was just a simple ‘tea and sandwich’ service from

the 1920s the industry has evolved to one which is of a highly complex structure

contingent on many environment and organisational factors for its successful operation.

The relationship structure and interface existing between the airline and the various

suppliers that make up this industry has been demonstrated to be of paramount

importance. From an operational perspective this interface would form the basis to ensure

the optimal performance and function of the airline’s onboard product.

AHB Original Articles, Inflight services

About the author

The person behind Airline Hub Buzz is a veteran having worked across a broad range of organisations in the industry. AHB's formal qualifications included a Bachelor of Business (Honours) (majors in Marketing, Management and Tourism Management) as well as a Master of Science and Technology (Aviation Management)...PhD in an Aviation related field soon.
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