The Future of Airplane Food Involves Robots, Apps, and Automats
Airplane food service hasn’t changed much since the introduction of the wheeled trolley, but some designers think it’s time to toss out the galleys and trays — and try something completely different.
Passengers could peruse the menu choices and place their order on an app, then collect it from one of the lockers at new self-service stations onboard, using near field communications (NFC). These in-flight automats could offer more than food, Berger says. Airlines could also supply comfort items like neck pillows, eye-masks, amenity kits, headphones, or duty-free luxury goods.
“We’re looking for ways to increase choice for passengers and the general drive for having ‘what I want when I want it’,” Berger said.
Berger also believes that airlines could install robotic galleys for food delivery. Meal preparation would be relocated to the belly of the plane, leaving more space in the main cabin for passenger seating. Food trays would be lifted to a service station where passengers could collect them when they are ready to eat.
Introducing self-service in-flight meals, controlled by apps and automation, could be better for the environment. It would help airlines reduce food waste and the trash generated by food packaging. It could also reduce the weight of equipment onboard, which would burn less fuel and generate a lower CO2 footprint.
“This was a big topic that we had when we were first ideating,” Berger told Travel + Leisure. “We talked about the packaging — big galley complexes with smaller boxes. There’s a lot of redundancy.”
The data gathered from processing inflight meals and sales of in-flight comforts could help airlines refine their services, even improve food and beverage quality.
“Airlines could partner with other luxury brands and other food brands, and have co-branded products,” Berger said. “You can imagine where an airline could lean into partnerships with brands like Starbucks. It could be a better food experience for the passenger, but also offer name-brand recognition.”
Airlines might also offer food pre-ordering from airport restaurants, to be served in-flight through one of the automated tray delivery systems.
“The next step is tying this thinking to the additional points along the journey,” Berger said. “Ordering through an app and tying that to the services and the restaurants that you experience at the airport, hotel, or other transportation hubs.”
Anna Petrova, a design student at Stroganov Moscow State University of Industrial and Applied Arts, also envisioned a new method for food delivery automation, using lifts and tracks to deliver food to passengers. She wanted to address the discomfort of having to stay in your seat while food trolleys clog up the aisles.
“[Passengers] face a lot of inconvenience,” Petrova told Travel + Leisure. “I faced this problem during one of my trips. My flight lasted just six hours but it was very uncomfortable to seat near galley and to see frequently running stewards and often coming people asking for additional glass of water. And also it bothered me very much to see a ‘huge metal case’ from which they take out our food.”
Petrova’s solution might also make flight attendants happy. By her estimation, based on flight attendant interviews, there are a lot of repetitive movements in the traditional airline food service process that can cause aches and pains. The height-adjustable trolley moves with an overhead guided rail, so it’s easier for flight attendants to push and there’s no bending required to remove the trays. The rail trolley is also designed to get out of the way, so it does not block the aisles when passengers need to get through.
Like Berger, Petrova was interested in making in-flight meals more eco-friendly. She designed food storage boxes that could be shredded along with tableware, to better manage food waste. The tableware would be made from cornstarch, which is easy to decompose, instead of plastics. She also thinks airlines could add an automated drinks dispenser onboard, which would cut back on beverage waste, while making it easier for passengers to stay hydrated.
A complete revolution in airplane meal service would be welcome, but Berger believes that we are likely to see incremental changes with some of these ideas being implemented over time.