It’s no longer about just meat, fish or pasta? Etihad is among latest airlines adopting AI and machine learning to reduce inflight food wastage

17 September, 2020

Just like at any restaurant on the ground, ensuring that you have enough food to serve all your guests with their preferred menu is a major dilemma for airlines. Get it wrong and not have enough of a dish and you have an unhappy customer; have to much and you face the issue of food wastage and additional costs – an economy aircraft meal costs on average around USD11, while a business class meal is around three times that price.

These food and beverage offer may vary widely in quality and quantity across different airline companies and classes of travel, but even the buy-on-board proposition that many now increasingly favour on short-haul flights faces the same problems with perishable items such as hot meals, sandwiches etc.

Changing traveller habits to pre-order has been one way that airlines have worked to find a solution and ensure that customers get to eat something that they want. This has proved particularly successful in the premium cabins where the offer of a ‘gourmet’ lunch or dinner already says many travellers pre-order.

Airline catering needs to be cost effective, but at the same time it is still an important marketing tool and differentiator for carriers in a cutthroat travel market. But it requires a lot of specialised expertise, involves complex logistics and becomes more efficient with scale, which is why responsibility generally falls into the hands of outside contractors.

Nowadays, a full-service long-haul airline catering offer needs to provide a broad product portfolio – ranging from fresh cooking (including haute cuisine) to producing meals at the best available cost (including frozen products and meal boxes) and onboard retail.

The first airline meals, in the form of pre-packed lunch boxes, were served on a flight from London to Paris in Oct-1919. The offer may have changed over the subsequent 100 years and not more determinedly than over the last decade, but the issue of stock has been an underlying problem.

Behind the scenes a lot of data is recorded to try and find the right balance. But this until now has been purely based on historical patterns, which can vary significantly for different markets and times of the day where customer preferences may alter.

This is one clear aspect of the air transport industry where advances in technology and data science could certainly deliver benefits economically and, importantly also sustainably and many airlines are starting to see the benefits. To some degree it will always be a numbers game, taking the average of historical data, but more advanced artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and machine learning applications can certainly provide a more accurate estimation.

This may simply come down to a couple of sandwiches per flight. But when you multiply up that cost and waste across the more than 100,000 flights that operate on the average day (pre Covid, of course) the levels become significant.

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways is among the world’s airlines that is using a commitment to driving innovation and sustainability through all aspects of its operations as a way of differentiating itself from rivals and supporting wider consumer attitudes. It has launched its own pilot with Singapore food technology startup Lumitics to develop a more efficient framework for its catering concept.

This started earlier this year before global flying was impacted by Covid-19, and will now resume as the airline scales up its flight operations again. Mohammad Al Bulooki, chief operating officer at the Etihad Aviation Group, believe that this project “will have the potential to support the drive to reduce food wastage” and, at the same time, improve guest experience by enabling Etihad to plan inflight catering “in a more relevant, effective and efficient way”.

The trial uses computer vision and machine learning in order to reduce inflight food wastage by tracking unconsumed meals in economy class. The technology uses AI and image recognition to “differentiate and identify the types and quantity of unconsumed meals based on the design of the meal foils, without requiring manual intervention”.

The UAE carrier is not alone among the airline community in its ambitions to tackle food waste, one of the largest cost saving opportunities for any business producing and serving food. Not only does it make business sense, it is also good for the environment. And next time you board an aircraft you can feel a little more confident that you will be served your preferred food option.