Airlines are already testing the concept.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated May 13, 2019
Credit: Jeff Greenberg / Getty Images

On most U.S. carriers, the biggest change to food service over the past couple decades is simply whether you get food service at all. But on those longer haul flights where a meal is included, the service itself isn’t much different than it’s always been: a choice of something like chicken or pasta served to you on a tiny plastic tray. Now, many airlines are beginning to realize the inefficiencies in this system: Stocking an airplane based on what people may want as opposed to what they definitely want creates waste which is in turn bad for the environment – as well as an airline’s bottom line. In all, it contributed to 5.2 million tons of waste last year for the industry as a whole.

One solution some airlines have been trying is getting passengers to preorder their meals in advance of their flights. Though on the surface, ordering in advance might seem like an inconvenience, the benefits to the carrier are clear. “Pre-ordering of meals … has obvious catering advantages,” Mark Ross-Smith, founder of Travel Data Daily, told CNN in an article on airline waste. “It lowers costs and weight on board, which translates to lower fuel burn.”

Thanks to the cost benefits, the practice of pre-ordering has already been picked up by a number of low-cost carriers, but selling the environmental benefits could help convince flyers to allow pre-ordering to become more mainstream. “We are focusing more and more on pre-order food,” Peter Lawrance, head chef of Scandinavian Airlines, told CNN. “We have made it easier to online pre-order your gluten-free, lactose-free, vegetarian or non-pork meals. This reduces waste and, in the end, cost. Ultimately we believe this will increase passenger satisfaction by offering the products our customer wants at the right time or flight.”

Despite being a change in policy, pre-ordering actually doesn’t seem that inconvenient. Most of what happens on our flights is predetermined online beforehand at this point anyway: You check-in beforehand; you say how many bags you’re checking beforehand; and you choose your seat beforehand. If selecting your meal option beforehand is a waste-cutter, why not? Even if you do find yourself regretting your decision once you’re in the air, let’s be honest, how much better is the chicken than your pasta anyway?