The business of local in-flight catering is currently hurting, as some airlines operating in Nigeria have failed to resume these services on the local routes. Ticket prices have however either remained at pre-COVID levels or even increased.
For some airlines, who have resumed in-flight catering service, the portions of the snacks have been reduced to small packages, which are handed over to passengers as they disembark from the aircraft after the flight.
After resumption of domestic flight operations, most airlines suspended in-flight catering service in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Few months after flights resumed, the minister of aviation directed that all airlines resume in-flight catering. Airlines that have resumed catering services have reduced portions in a bid to cushion the effect of COVID-19 on their operations, while some other airlines have failed to resume the service, thereby shunning the order.
Before COVID-19, airlines lifted an average of 12 million passengers annually on local destinations. BusinessDay’s checks show that airlines pay an average of N500 for snacks and drinks served to each passenger on local destinations. This implies that annually, airlines spend about N6 billion for local in-flight catering.
Shortly before flight resumption last year, Hadi Sirika, aviation minister, announced the suspension of in-flight catering. The decision was taken in a bid to minimise the spread of the coronavirus.
Consequently, all the domestic airlines suspended service of food and drinks to reduce cabin interactions that could spread the virus.
But in March 2021, Sirika, at a media briefing of the presidential task force (PTF) on COVID-19, in Abuja, announced the resumption of in-flight catering services.
He said the decision was taken in consideration of the businesses involved in the provision of in-flight refreshments, which have been adversely affected by the suspension.
He, however, explained that modalities for the resumption of catering services would be worked on and rolled out by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), which will be in line with international practices.
BusinessDay’s findings however show that Dana Air, Ibom Air and Aero Contractors have commenced in-flight catering even though passengers are served when disembarking from the aircraft.
Air Peace, the country’s largest domestic carrier, is yet to resume in-flight catering and experts say the volume of catering services offered to Air Peace is quite huge and this is affecting the domestic catering service industry.
Checks also show that Arik Air, Azman Air and Max Air have also failed to resume in-flight catering services since the minister’s directive for in-flight catering to resume.
However, for Ikechi Uko, a travel expert, anything that will help the airlines survive should be encouraged. Therefore, if the airlines are struggling to resume in-flight catering, the government should not impose it on them.
“The primary thing an airline should provide to passengers is transport from one point to another. Any other thing is not important. We survived one year without in-flight catering, so I don’t know why it is now important,” Uko says.
On the other hand, for some frequent travellers, the need for airlines to resume catering services is to help ease jet lag.
“Inflight catering service is one service that eases jet lag for me. Most of my trips are in the morning and a hot cup of tea helps me start the day. The absence of this service makes the journey boring and tiring,” James Okafor, a frequent traveller on Air Peace, states.
Before now, Nigerian caterers were losing out in the in-flight catering market as a result of tough business environment that has continued to constrain small indigenous players from penetrating the market, according to findings.
According to the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the in-flight catering market is open to both global and indigenous players to compete favourably, but the reality is that it is controlled by few catering services, as funding, policies and contract terms have discouraged small-scale caterers from penetrating the huge market.
“Some of the airlines owe us huge debts for our services and have refused to pay, while some others demand an outrageous sum of over N50 million as start-up fee before even agreeing to sign a contract with us. This money is given to the airline just to sustain patronage,” an in-flight catering service provider, who craved anonymity, told BusinessDay.
“On the policy side, it takes over one year to get an average catering service provider certified by the NCAA to supply meals or snacks to airlines, even after meeting most of the requirements by the agency,” the service provider said.
The global market for in-flight catering services is projected to reach $22.4 billion by 2025.
This is driven by the unprecedented rise in air passenger traffic and the resulting increase in demand for airline food and the increasing popularity of gourmet food catering as a competitive strategy for service differentiation among airline companies.