Why skipping your in-flight meal is better for the environment

Airlines worldwide are tackling food waste in increasingly innovative ways – but there are steps travellers can take, too

An Iata report found airline passengers generate about 1.43kg of waste per flight, 20 per cent of which is untouched food and drinks. Getty Images
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There are generally two reactions when an in-flight meal is served: delight or dread. Some happily work through every course, while others pick at the food, leaving the bulk of their tray untouched. But what happens to that leftover food?

Last year, an International Air Transport Association report found the average airline passenger generates about 1.43kg of waste per flight, 20 per cent of which consists of untouched food and drinks.

This isn't only a blow to the industry's bottom line, but also to the environment, as airlines are burning fuel to carry meals that passengers might not eat, as well as source ingredients, store and prepare meals, only to incinerate unconsumed food later.

Getting creative to minimise food waste

With recycling or reusing cabin waste, airlines face complex regulations, especially on international routes. Catering waste is subject to special handling and disposal requirements, including incineration and sterilisation, which makes reusing and recycling difficult.

Although meals are prepared under global hygiene controls, countries have individual regulations and restrictions on the disposal of catering waste based on biosecurity concerns.

However, many airlines are devising increasingly innovative ways to manage the issue.

Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways has been using artificial intelligence to track food waste. The airline teamed up with Lumitics in 2020 to track unconsumed economy-class meals, with the collated data used to highlight food consumption and wastage patterns across the network.

In its most recent sustainability report, Singapore Airlines revealed it uses the same start-up as Etihad. The company created a product called Insight, a smart bin that measures, tracks and identifies food waste thrown into it. Using AI, Insight makes recommendations to reduce waste based on passengers’ consumption habits, allowing Singapore Airlines to make informed decisions about quantities brought on board and tweaking menus based on leftovers.

'Hold the meal, thanks'

Another way airlines are tackling the problem is by inviting passengers to opt out of receiving a meal before boarding. In 2020, Japan Airlines trialled a "meal skip" option on a flight to Bangkok and it was deemed a success. In December 2022, the airline expanded the option to all of its international routes, across all classes.

Up to 25 hours before departure, passengers flying with the airline can select the "no meal" option online. This cancels any main meal being packed onto the plane for them, although beverages and snacks are available on request.

The option has been well-received, says the airline, especially on late-night flights when some travellers prefer to sleep. For every cancelled meal, the airline donates funds to the Table for Two non-profit, which is tackling global hunger with school lunch projects for children in developing countries.

America's Delta Air Lines made a similar move for its business class passengers in 2022, allowing customers to skip their first meal. The option is available during the preflight selection process on Delta One services for long-haul domestic flights and certain international routes.

During the first three months of the programme, roughly 1,000 to 1,500 meals were voluntarily declined each month, a Delta representative told CNN.

What can passengers do?

While these initiatives are still in their infancy, many airlines are exploring other avenues to address food waste and sustainability. In the UAE, Emirates' vegan meal options, which emit fewer greenhouse gases than meat-based meals, are increasingly popular.

Last year, the airline noted a 40 per cent increase in customer demand for plant-based meals. This year, it is set to add more than 300 vegan dishes to its menus.

Emirates Flight Catering, one of the world’s largest airline catering providers, has also committed to reducing food waste by 35 per cent across its central operations in Dubai. The move leveraged AI and machine learning with an advanced food waste management system in its catering facilities.

And even if an airline doesn't have a campaign in place, if you know you aren't going to eat your in-flight meal, it helps to make your own arrangements, such as by having a substantial meal in the terminal before you leave or taking your own food. Your meal may already be on the plane, but the crew can give it to another passenger who requests a second portion, or use it as a staff meal. And the more meals that are discarded, the more likely airlines may be to consider tweaking quantities or opt-out models.

Tracking leftovers is a no-brainer for airlines, according to aviation expert Trevor Jensen. “Wastage is pollution,” he says. “Although meals are built into the fare of full-service flights, wastage should be kept low. If the crew sees that no one ever eats the eggs, for example, the menu is wrong.

“Catering chefs also want to know if meals are being enjoyed – there’s a fair bit of thought put into them.”

As a former pilot and senior manager at Aer Lingus and Qantas, Jensen has eaten plenty of in-flight meals over the years, but now he's bringing his own food on his travels.

“On my last flight from Melbourne to Singapore, I flew with a home-made sandwich my wife prepared, with a cup of tea offered by the crew," he adds. "It’s all I needed.”

Updated: March 28, 2024, 4:07 AM