Flying the Wasteful Skies

Ruggero Da Ros wrote me recently with a link to his article, in Italian on airline food waste. Since he was kind enough to provide the translation, I thought I’d post it here. In addition to raising the interesting topic of airborne food waste, it’s a nice memento of the days when American airlines served food (for free). 

Remember these?  Photo by Yuichi Sakuraba via creative commons.Ruggero’s piece raises a tough question–should food costs be included in ticket prices or charged onboard. It seems that the latter works better in terms of avoiding waste. 

While selling food onboard leaves airlines with no way of knowing how many meals they’ll need, from what I’ve seen, they’re happy to err on the side of running out–a true rarity in food service!

So think of that argument, and Ruggero’s piece, the next time you start to grouse about how planes are nickel and diming us…I know I will. (Or at least focus on the checked bag fees, instead.)



Vacations are over. Many of us have been travelling by air to distant places. Have you ever noticed how much food is wasted? On the flights that are not low cost and that last more than an hour, a meal and a snack are served on trays in various plastic containers wrapped with plastic film. Hardly anybody refuses them. Some might not be hungry or have no intention to eat them, nonetheless they accept them hoping to find something to their taste or because it is included in the ticket fare.

A lot of people open the wrapping, smell the food or taste just a little bit of it, others eat something, only a few of them eat everything. On long distance flights almost two complete meals are served, one just after taking off and the other before landing.

Is all this food really necessary? In the low cost flights the food is paid apart from the travel fare and few people buy it, yet these companies are successful. We might then wonder why the other airline companies don’t give the opportunity to choose between a fare with meals and one without, and with a lower price? Doing so the exaggerated use of plastic containers and wrapping would be reduced, the cost of the airline tickets would also be reduced and, above all, the waste of enormous quantities of food would thus be avoided.

Let’s consider two calculations. On an intercontinental flight with 300 people 600 meals are served and, if they were to be paid, one can consider that at least 400 meals and 80 kg of plastic would be saved. In Europe only, around 800 million passengers fly every year; supposing that only one meal every 10 travellers could be saved, it would add up to the enormous figure of 80 million wasted meals. This would be enough to feed over 200,000 inhabitants of the poorer countries for a year and this figure would become millions if we extended this calculation to the whole world.

Considering that the aeroplane remains the most polluting transport means, indeed a trip between Europe and America of two people contributes, as far as gas and electricity consumption is concerned, to the same consumption as an average family in one whole year, thus let’s avoid wasting if we really cannot avoid flying.

18 September 2009
Ruggero Da Ros
Vittorio Veneto – Italy

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  1. Posted October 7, 2009 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    The argument of “if we save x amount of meals, we’ll be able to feed Y amount of people in poor countries” is ludicrous. No matter how much food you save in the West, it will not affect nutrition in the 3rd world. I also oppose food waste, but this argument is completely out of context.

  2. Emily
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Leah, I agree with your sentiment but maybe in this case there IS potential for that equation to work? With school lunches and home-cooked lunches – I’d say you’re definitely right. But if hundreds of meals saved by airlines are pre-wrapped and already handled in such a way that they can be kept fresh for a fairly long amount of time, I would think airline meals are one instance when, in fact, the untouched ones could be easily transported to a local food bank, and depending on how far away the “third world” is from the plane, maybe they’d make it there as well. It would to be in bulk, of course. What do you think?

    I expect rather than saving meals on site, the smarter thing to do is just prepare less food. That doesn’t do anything directly to feed hungry people, but just seems like the right thing to do.

  3. Posted October 7, 2009 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Leah, I agree; I wouldn’t make that argument that our unwasted food could help those in the third world. But I’m not sure Ruggero is making that argument, either. He says the meals “would be enough to feed…” Maybe he’ll tell us what he had in mind?

    But Emily, interesting point, too. If there was one case where what we don’t eat could help those in poorer nations it could be the unserved meals on a flight from a developed to a developing nation.

    Obviously, it’s not a real solution, but it can’t hurt. But, preparing less food would get my vote over this plan.

  4. Ruggero Da Ros
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments interesting. It is true as says Leah, 10 meals spared by plane are not 10 meals available in the third world countries, but there are two observations:

    - For many people it is easier to understand the hunger in the Third World that the exaggerated waste of food in rich countries. That is, for most people, the Third World hunger is a problem, but not a problem too much food in rich countries. This is wrong.

    - Then, as say Emily and Jonathan, wasting less food in rich countries mean wasting fewer resources and leave land to cultivate for others. Many rich countries import food from poorer countries, depriving them the land to cultivate.

    Certainly the waste of plastic and food on air travel is a small problem, but because little is more easily solvable. In the end, you simply put on a computer the ability to choose “flight with meal” or “flight without meal”.

    Certainly, even in school or company canteen is wasted much food, but in canteen you go for eat. Instead, on airplanes, you go for fly.

    What do you think?

    Ruggero Da Ros

  5. WilliamB
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    I think that waste in the US must be less because most carriers do not offer free food in cattle class for flights under 3-4 hours.

    I know that the best way to convince airlines of this is to talk about money savings not food savings: how much does it cost to cart around food that customers don’t eat? How much money could airlines save by reducing food waste?

  6. Posted October 8, 2009 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    I think whoever wrote this article either isn’t aware of or doesn’t consider seriously the actual situation on long-haul flights. You have fewer and fewer flight attendants taking care of larger and larger numbers of passengers; you have a situation where hundreds of people are trapped in a cramped space for eight or eleven hours or more; you have a company charging huge prices for the ticket–and on top of this you want to charge passengers MORE, give the flight attendants another responsibility, including making change, and do something that is likely to make people angry? In economy class on these flights there is already an atmosphere of suppressed rage. Just thought of having to listen to passengers arguing with flight attendants over food, or comfort their children who don’t get food when they see others getting it makes my blood pressure rise. I’m sorry, but long haul flights (I am on eight or more per year, which doesn’t even make me a serious road warrior) are miserable enough without adding another bone of contention to the mix. And frankly, the environmental result is negligible.

  7. Ruggero Da Ros
    Posted October 8, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    In my article I do not say to remove the meal to all but give the possibility to those who do not want to eat, not to have a meal and not pay for it.

  8. Posted October 8, 2009 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    servetus–do they not serve wine with meals on these long-haul flights anymore? That used to go a long way toward lowering the blood pressure. If domestic carriers don’t, maybe try looking into foreign airlines.

  9. Ruggero Da Ros
    Posted October 9, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    This is the European Parliament’s response to my letter:
    Dear Mr. Da Ros,

    Thank you for your message to the European Parliament concerning the waste of food served on airlines.

    I would agree with many of the points you make, but the airlines worldwide are apparently convinced that meals on long-haul flights are essential and that this forms part of their service package.

    I think you will also find that many passengers appreciate the serving of meals, not by any means in most cases because of the quality of the food, but as a means of breaking up and relieving the boredom of long flights.

    We must all regret the waste and I am sure that most people would agree with you that the amount of packaging ought to be reduced. However, part of an airline’s job is to prevent the passengers from becoming over-nervous or anxious or panicky during a long flight. It is mainly for this reason that the serving of meals, with its overtones of comfort, normality and regularity is important on long flights, together with the need to combat jetlag and adjust as soon as possible to the time-difference on east-west flights.

    As to the need to reduce considerably unnecessary plastic packaging, I am sure that most sensible people would agree with you.


    European Parliament
    Directorate General for the Presidency
    Correspondence with Citizens Unit

  10. servetus
    Posted October 9, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Nope, no more free alcohol in economy on long-haul international flights from US carriers–in something like six years now. Most of the int’l carriers codelist with with domestic carriers, so it really doesn’t help to pick a non-US carrier, at least if you are “only” going to Europe. Still no alcohol.

    The real environmental problem caused by long-haul flights is not the food waste — it’s the byproduct of the consumption of all of that fossil fuel.

  11. Ruggero Da Ros
    Posted October 13, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure the real problem with air travel is the big pollution from fuel, but I think it’s easier to ask airlines to reduce wasted food.

    This kind of waste of food is not very important, but so is the principle.

    Imagine what would happen if the tickets of trains or buses were including the meal!

  12. Posted March 5, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Can anyone please help me with getting this started in AZ.? My brother works for Delta as a flight attendant and he says the amount of unopened food that is wasted is unbelievable.
    There are too many people starving to be throwing good food away. I am glad to here Alaska Airline has began to help change this.
    Please contact me.
    Fire Up Freedom

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