Why Air India Going Vegetarian-only Is A Sham: Data Contradict Every Logic Given By The Airline


Why exactly has Air India stopped serving non-vegetarian meals to economy class passengers? Well, the airline’s Chairman and MD Ashwani Lohani had reasoned this controversial move thus: it will cut wastage (single meal type means lesser number of food trays get loaded on to an aircraft), lower catering costs and avoid mix-up of vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals.

But written replies given in Parliament by the Minister of State for Civil Aviation do not quite support Lohani’s reasoning. According to what was said in Parliament, the airline has found only one complaint each year between 2014 and 2016 of a mix-up of vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals in the hundreds of meals it serves up daily. The government has also thrown up its hands, with the minister saying no directive has been given to Air India on whether to cut out non-vegetarian meals from domestic flights. And wonder of wonders, this step was taken after obtaining feedback from fliers. Of course, there is no disclosure by the government on what fliers said on the matter and how many agreed with this decision to cut out non-vegetarian food.

This piece in the Hindu first alerted fliers about the missing chicken soup on board Air India flights.

Here, Lohani said Air India stopped serving non-vegetarian meals to economy class passengers on all domestic flights from mid-June. “We have decided to serve vegetarian meals in our economy class seats on domestic flights,” he said but added non-vegetarian meals would continue to be served in business and executive class. Air India ostensibly took this sanskari decision to cut wastage and cost and to avoid mix-up of vegetarian with non-vegetarian meals. “It also eliminates the possibility of mix-up: a non-veg meal getting served to a vegetarian passenger, as it had happened a few times in the past.”

How many times has a vegetarian passenger been served a non-vegetarian meal? Well, as per a written reply by the Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha in Lok Sabha on Thursday, this happened exactly once each in 2014, in 2015 and in 2016. Air India has hundreds of daily flights with hundreds of meal servings every single day. And in all 365 days in each of these three years, the incidents of mix-up were only one each. Reason enough for switch to vegetarian?

The reply also does not substantiate Lohani’s claim that wiping out non-vegetarian food from the economy cabin will cut wastage. “Air India does not maintain any record of food wasted on account of non-consumption by passengers,” Sinha said. If there is no record to show how much food is being wasted, what is the reason for eliminating non-vegetarian food, which is anyway about 30 percent of the food loaded on to the flight?

Now let us figure out how much does Air India save by eliminating non-vegetarian food from the economy class of its domestic flights. Only Rs 8-10 crore annually, Air India officials later explained. This is minuscule saving when one looks at the overall cost structure of Air India, is it then sensible to alienate fliers for such small pickings?

This piece in Indian Express lists various insane cost heads of an inefficient Air India and one of the listings is the amount the airline paid in a single year for just cancellations and flights delays: Rs 10 crore in 2016. More often than not, Air India tops all domestic airlines in passenger complaints and instances of flight delays, denied boarding and flight cancellations. So does making the economy class shakahari really save anything considerable for the airline?

This is not to say that the adage ‘every drop makes an ocean’ doesn’t apply here. Airlines do seemingly insane penny-pinching to bring down costs.

This piece in the Economist gives an example of American Airlines, which removed a single olive from its on-board menu and managed to save over $40,000 per year by just this seemingly trivial cost cutting measure! Apparently, flight crew observed that nearly three-quarters of fliers left the customary olive in salads untouched. “Robert Crandall, the company’s boss at the time, promptly removed it. It turned out that the airline paid its caterers based on the number of ingredients in the salad: 60 cents for four items and 80 cents for five. The olive was the fifth item. This move saved more than $40,000 a year. In 1994, Southwest Airlines followed the suggestion of a flight attendant and removed the company’s logo from rubbish bags, saving the carrier $300,000 a year in printing costs.”

Meanwhile, in another reply in Parliament, Minister Sinha had said earlier during the current session that non-vegetarian food was removed from the menu after passenger feedback through cabin crew members. He of course did not mention what the feedback was, how many passengers favoured removal of non-vegetarian items and how many were upset buy any mix-ups in the two cuisines.

It is interesting to see that business class passengers continue to get a choice of vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare even now. One wonders if a mix-up is considered well nigh impossible in these premium classes purely because of the number of seats (Economy has the maximum number of seats on a flight) and whether Air India remains cautious about offending premium passengers more than the cattle class fliers.

A word in Air India’ defense here: This piece in Times of India says Royal Dutch Airlines KLM serves vegetarian meals to economy class passengers on its Delhi-Amsterdam flights. Unlike AI’s short domestic flights that can at most be three hours long, the flying time between Delhi and Amsterdam is almost eight hours.

Still, with little cost justification, no real evidence of wastage and hardly any instances of mix-up between vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals, is Air India’s shakahari drive justified?

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