Discarded fruit and vegetables thrown out for composting

Consuming data – how AI can help airlines reduce food waste

Arguably, the single greatest burden to our planet is food production, food handling and waste management. The airline industry, as a people business, necessarily shares this burden. And if the climate crisis is not enough motivation to tackle inefficiencies in the system, the business implications surely are. The forward-thinking airlines are turning to innovative tech tools that harness artificial intelligence and data analytics for solutions.

The environmental case for tackling food waste is increasingly hard to ignore. Unconsumed food, included losses at pre-consumer levels, is associated with some 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions according to United Nations calculations.

Around 931 million tonnes of food, or 17% of all food sold to consumers in 2019, went into the waste bins of households, retailers, restaurants and other food services, according to the Food Waste Index Report 2021 issued in March by the UN Environment Programme and WRAP, a global NGO and environmental charity. In a separate announcement last year, the UNEP reported that 14% of food production is lost before it even reaches market. In other words, broadly 30% of all food production is wasted systemically.

Six years ago, all UN member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the goal of halving per capita food waste by the end of this decade. With just nine years left to realise this target, the pressure to make a difference is ramping up.

A compelling business case

The business case to reduce food waste in the cabin is equally compelling. The IATA Cabin Waste Handbook, published by the International Airline Industry Association and WRAP at the end of 2019 reveals that up to 5.7 million tonnes of cabin waste was carried up into the air and brought back down again in 2017. Up to a quarter of that waste was untouched food and beverages. Taking into account that the inflight catering services market was worth about US $15.5 billion in 2017, IATA reckons up to $3.9 billion worth is landfilled or incinerated.

An ongoing challenge, as IATA and WRAP highlight, is the lack of visibility around cabin waste composition and the costs applied to airlines and their service partners, although anecdotal evidence mentioned in their report suggests it can be over $600 per tonne simply for handling and disposing of cabin waste. A mutual problem shared by airlines is biosecurity concerns, which have led a number of countries to strictly regulate what happens to international catering waste, making re-use and re-cycling downright difficult, if not impossible.

Nonetheless, some airlines are implementing local initiatives to reduced food waste. Across August and September 2021, SWISS teamed up with app platform Too Good to Go to trial reducing the prices of any fresh food items unsold on the last flights of the day from Geneva on its European network.

Japan Airlines’s website enables passengers on some flights to opt out of meals in advance, while its inflight catering subsidiary has started composting leftovers from the preparation of meals for international flights. JAL Royal Catering produced some 150 tons of leftovers per year as of 2019. Over 11 tons were composted in the first quarter of 2020 and by fiscal 2025 the organisation aims to compost through the recycling of all cooking residue at Tokyos Narita and Haneda international airports.

Applying data to the problem

Accelerated digitalisation in response to the current COVID-19 crisis is starting to help airlines gain a better understanding of food wastage and to implement processes to reduce losses. An idea of how data can be applied to the problem can be seen at China Eastern Airlines, which is using big data tools and just-in-time methodologies at its Shanghai inflight catering facility to curb food wastage. The airline revealed last summer that its catering team monitors the company’s enterprise resource planning system for real-time flight information and changes to passengers’ seats to make timely adjustments to onboard food before delivery.

A caterer in hair net and face mask using a computer touch screen showing images of fresh fruit to enter information into the Winnow Vision artificial intelligence product

Image: Winnow. Emirates Flight Catering targets a 35% reduction in food waste with Winnow’s food waste management system that leverages AI and machine learning

On World Food Day, 15 October 2020, Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) committed to achieving a 35% reduction in food waste across its central operations in Dubai, which serves the flights of over 100 airlines and, at peak, can prepare up to 225,000 meals per day. To help meet this target, EKFC is working with Winnow to roll out an advanced food waste management system that leverages AI and machine learning to automatically monitor and control food waste.

Using a camera and a set of smart scales, the system ‘learns’ to recognise different foods being thrown in the bin and calculates both the financial and environmental cost, enabling EKFC to adjust its purchasing accordingly. Additionally, EKFC has been working closely with its airline customers to analyse consumption trends and harness predictive data to optimise the loading of food and beverages for inflight catering.

In a bid to get to grip with food consumption and wastage patterns across its network, Etihad Airways is tracking uneaten economy class meals. It has teamed up with Lumitics to trial the use of computer vision and machine learning to lower food waste on its flights. The technology differentiates and identifies the types and quantities of uneaten meals, without manual intervention, based on the design of the meal foils, allowing Etihad to track unconsumed food when an aircraft touches down at an airport.

When the initiative was announced in September 2020, Etihad Aviation Group’s Chief Operating Officer Mohammad Al Bulooki noted that this trial was part of the airline’s commitment to drive sustainability through all aspects of its operations. “We 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.”

Innovations in onboard retail platforms are primarily aimed at improving passenger experience and helping airlines to meet their commercial targets, however the technology also has the potential to support environmental goals. Earlier this year (2021), gategroup and its partner Black Swan, a data science company, escalated the trial of their Epax e-commerce platform on easyJet flights. Epax, which is powered by Black Swan’s social prediction tools, removes the need for paper menus and brochures onboard, as passengers browse, order and buy inflight via their own mobile devices. The retail experience is accessible via a simple connection to an onboard wireless network through the passenger’s own browser.

A hand is holding a smartphone with aircraft cabin window in the background. On the smartphone screen is the Epax app onboard menu offering recommended food and beverage items

Image: gategroup. easyJet is trialing the gategroup and Black Swan Epax e-commerce platform, powered by social prediction tools

Travellers are offered more relevant choices, based on factors such as flight destination, flight duration and time of day, plus insights generated from a wealth of inflight retail data. From an airline perspective, the onboard menu is no longer static, allowing easyJet to serve promotions dynamically and manage pricing differently. Not only is the shopping window expanded throughout the flight, in the long run the airline will no longer dependant on what can be physically stocked and served on the plane.

The platform has the potential to remove hundreds of tonnes of paper a year from the cabin, saving natural resources, reducing waste across the airline and contributing to fuel efficiency through weight reduction. Additionally smarter loading of cabins based on retail data is expected to drive down waste.

Speaking with David Parry, Managing Director of the gategroup-Black Swan JV, Epax is a final piece of the jig saw puzzle that will ultimately allow the partners to provide a full end-to-end retail journey that also includes pre-order.

Parry acknowledges that if the offer is limited to some sandwiches, pre-order will hardly be of interest to passengers. “But if we can…create that end-to-end journey, unlock the value that’s inherent in that, we can actually push more people into pre-ordering, because there will be more choice of product and delivery options,” he says. “And the more people we can push into pre-order, that is really how we can make some serious dents in those waste numbers.”

Industry standards and support systems will be the way forward

Thinking bigger picture still, AI-based systems to help airlines predict and track food waste will be even more effective when they are part of a wider support system. Commercial Director of the International Aviation Waste Management Association Gregoire James explains: “To effectuate change in air transport and mitigate food waste, the industry can work to optimise procurement and develop standards around waste handling, which is just beginning industry-wide.”

In November 2021, the IAWMA and SAE International, a global organisation committed to advancing mobility knowledge and solutions, announced they will be collaborating to develop standards for products, processes and services in commercial and business aviation, airports and flight kitchens.

The IAWMA believes that to make food-waste tracing system investments cost-effective over the next 18 months, airlines will first need to have integrated strategic alliances with solution-based programmes supported by the markets in which they operate.

Gregoire James predicts that food waste will continue unabated without market partnerships for intra-national programmes to help stem the issue. “Without bringing together stakeholders to collaborate in alignment with advocacy efforts, however, food will continue to be wasted, essentially defeating the technology’s purpose.” he cautions.

Undoubtedly, there are significant savings and resourcing improvement to be made across inflight food processing and onboard offers. Some initiatives, for example food waste disposal, will require close collaborations within the aviation industry and with external stakeholders, which brings its own challenges. But to not address the issues around food waste would be a failure to compete and, importantly, a failure to take responsibility for our part in the climate change crisis.


Featured image credit: Ben_Kerckx on Pixabay

The original version of this article was published on the World Travel Catering and Onboard Services Expo content hub on 14 April 2021. This version was updated on 5 November 2021.


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