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Allergic to Vegetables

Tarun has declared that he is going to say, "I am allergic to vegetables" the next time he flies in India and the airline runs out of non-veg options by the time they get to him. With bewilderment and indignation he asks: Why am I forced to eat vegetarian when vegetarians aren’t forced to eat non-veg?! Point! Especially when you consider that 58% of Indians are meat-eaters. Between my loving vegetarian and vegan family and friends and the husband I adore, I feel a bit caught between a rock and a hard place in the friendly skies.

So, I started thinking about how airlines decide the mix of on-board meal options.

Years ago vegetarians would have to special order their meals. What happened to that tradition and why? I am assuming cost-cutting happened. Unable to deal with rising fuel and personnel costs and competition from low-cost and no frill carriers, sensible airlines were felled. They still serve meals on long flights and sell food on shorter flights but they can’t afford to poll their paying customers and offer bespoke options.

Now that we live in the world of data science and AI, shouldn't it be easier to figure out the optimum mix of food options? I was taken aback to find out that this is an area of massive wastage in the airline industry. What they serve on airplanes is never the right mix. Plus customer demands change based on route. I read that passengers flying into Atlanta prefer Coke and the ones flying to LAX want kale. Well, of course. Atlanta is the global headquarters of Coca Cola and we all know Californians have strong preferences. EasyJet has hired a data science team to understand how to stock their food and beverage carts to reduce the 800,000 items of waste every year that occurs from wrong foods on the wrong planes.

Tarun is all for data science based optimization. Heck, he'll even help create the models, especially if it will get him meat on every route! There are plenty of yummy options for carnivores on the trans-Atlantic flights, except even those flights can run out of his favorite option by the time they get to him. Short ribs...yay! No sir, don't have that anymore. The sad truth is that data science is not going to solve his problem until the cabin crew inform the food and beverage teams about how many passengers did not get their first choice. Instead, the flight attendant offers a different option and we move on. In the end, between the plastic and wasted food, airlines produce 5.2M tonnes of waste at a cost of $500M according to IATA, not to mention disgruntled customers. And this wastage is projected to double in the next 15 years.

I don't see Tarun's problem being solved anytime soon and so I will consider secretly packing vacuum-sealed meats in my hand bag to prevent a meltdown.

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