It may surprise you to know that plant-based meals have been available on flights for several decades. In those pre-internet days, ordering a vegan meal was arranged through a posted letter addressed to the airline detailing the passenger’s special dietary needs. Sixty years on and despite widespread acceptance of plant-based diets, long-haul passengers still face hurdles.
Securing a plant-based meal requires extra effort. Requests must be made far in advance and are not guaranteed. There are numerous reports of plant-based meals being served with butter, smothered with dairy cheese, and most commonly – pre-ordered meals failing to make it to the flight.
One such famous case, saw an Air Canada passenger on an eight-hour flight being served a bottle of water to make up for the missing plant-based meal. Outraged and hungry Miriam Forter later resorted to a granola bar and plant-based snacks being brought in from business class, and a PR nightmare for Air Canada.
Considering the soaring demand for plant-based foods and their popularity within society at large, there is mounting pressure for plant-based meals be offered on all flights as standard.
With the world waking up to the climate crisis, pressure is being applied on the travel sector to minimize their carbon footprint. In a bid to achieve net-zero targets, some airlines have introduced more efficient aircrafts into service as well as drastically cutting back their plastic waste. The introduction of canned water and wine brands was one such example.
Virgin Atlantic have even gone the extra mile. They mandated that cabin crew uniforms feature a minimum of 25% recycled materials, have opted for sustainably sourced amenity kits, and reduced the airline’s carbon footprint by not serving beef on board.
With such efforts being made, it begs the bigger question: why not reduce climate impact by offering more plant-based meals? With so many airlines paying lip service to sustainability, this is a clear oversight. The industry’s carbon emissions could be significantly reduced by offering a plant-based meal as standard for the estimated one billion inflight meals they serve each year.
“There is a great deal of discussion around vegan and plant-based trends and food choices in travel” explained Hari Kamaluddin, VirginAtlantic’s manager of inflight services, “but in terms of the numbers of meals requested it’s a very small percentage of our overall offering. The highest demand comes from the UK and the US but other regions it is significantly less.”
The latest airlines.org data shows that on average, airlines spend 32.9% on labor, 16.9% on fuel, and only 1.6% on food. Food is not a significant investment for airlines. But this thinking is wrong, believes Charlie Huson, Forward Food Program Manager at Humane Society International UK. “If everyone flying out of Heathrow in just one day chose a vegan meal” said Huson, “it could save around 33,592 tons of CO2, the equivalent of driving 112,695,851 miles in an average UK petrol car.”
The provision gap between long haul and short flights seems to be narrowing – United Airlines is now giving its customers more plant-based menu options. Onboard and in selected lounges in the US, they have incorporated Impossible Foods among other meat alternatives. The airline cites a Nielsen report showing that more than half of US consumers are increasing their plant-based food consumption, and that sales of plant-based meat continue to climb.
In addition to this, budget European airline Ryanair customers have been excited by their latest menu additions of vegan lasagne and plant-based sausage rolls. It appears that short-haul flights, which upsell food and beverages to their inflight customers, are leading the way with innovation. They reap the financial reward of offering plant-based options – simply put, it is the difference between that customer making a purchase onboard or not.
Having taken steps to address the issue of sustainability, airlines are still slow to fully incorporate plant-based food onboard. Far from being served as standard, plant-based meals remain a tick box exercise for the special dietary requirements, and an environmental afterthought.
Long-haul airlines without the direct financial imperative to offer plant-based food need to recognize that their innovation in this area could be the difference between customers choosing them over their competitors. Furthermore, it gives them the opportunity to demonstrate real commitment to climate goals beyond plastic bottles.