May 18, 2024

Lightening the load

April Waterston explores how airlines are striving to make flights greener through inflight products and services

Airlines know they need to up their game in the fight to make travel more sustainable. It’s a challenge they are, for the most part, taking very seriously.

“We’re embracing a new goal to be 100% green by 2050 by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Scott Kirby, CEO United Airlines. “We’ll get there, not with flashy, empty gestures, but by taking the harder, better path of actually reducing the emissions from flying.”

While the research and development of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is often considered the number one solution, there are countless other ways in which airlines are trying to better their sustainability credentials.

Subtle changes to the onboard products and services might not make the headlines, but they can still have a big impact.

Two key sustainability buzzwords in the inflight industry are ‘weight’ and ‘waste’. Reducing weight on board is a top priority for airlines, as ultimately that is how they can limit the amount of fuel needed to burn for each flight, SAF or otherwise. Airlines are constantly trying to reduce weight on board, from the chairs passengers sit on to the cutlery they use and everything in between.

Helping travellers to understand the role they can play in reducing weight and waste on board is a good way to empower them to take their emissions into their own hands, for example, through reduced luggage weight.

Finnair has calculated that if each of its passengers were to reduce luggage weight by 5kg, the total reduction would reach almost 17,000 tons of CO².

Meal prep

IATA research has shown the average passenger generates 1.43kg of cabin waste per flight, with 20% of this being completely untouched food and drink.

As a result, travellers and travel managers may have noticed an increase in the number of airlines requesting passengers to pre-order or even opt out of their meals. Pre-ordering means airlines can load the amount of meals they need and less food ends up being wasted.

Reducing waste, while helping to reduce weight, also limits the amount of single-use plastic and items that need to be destroyed. Strict laws currently mean that the majority of waste product from planes has to be incinerated upon arrival, primarily to reduce the spread of diseases.

Behind the scenes, airlines and their caterers are trialling innovative methods to reduce food waste.

One of the world’s biggest airline caterers, LSG Group, and aircraft manufacturer Airbus have both trialled technology that uses artificial intelligence and consumption analytics to scan food trays post-flight to see what food is most commonly left uneaten.

This technology, hypothetically, would allow chefs to redesign their menus to leave out items that are wasted.

Cathay Pacific Catering Services (CPCS) has joined a pilot scheme for food waste collection which will see it transformed into energy and compost, while Japan Airlines has introduced the option to skip its inflight meal service in order to reduce food waste, instead donating the meal to those in need.

Here are some of the other initiatives airlines are taking to reduce their carbon load:

Virgin Atlantic

In addition to reducing its inflight weight and carbon footprint, Virgin Atlantic has set itself the challenge of removing 90% of raw single-use plastics onboard. This has led to a complete overhaul of its onboard service items, with beverages being a key focus area – especially water bottles. As a result, last year it introduced CanO resealable cans of water to its Upper Class cabins.

Delta air lines

Delta has partnered with a Mexican apparel brand called Someone Somewhere to create the amenity kits for its premium Delta One cabin. The partnership has created jobs for more than 250 people in five of Mexico’s most vulnerable states. The amenity kit eliminates five single-use plastic items such as zippers and packaging, reducing plastic use by up to 90,000 pounds on an annual basis. The artisanal production process also eliminates waste and uses regenerated cotton.


As part of its Lufthansa’s Onboard Delights offering, a large proportion of the fresh products are packaged in PaperWise material, made from agricultural waste material and produced using 100% renewable energy, making it CO² neutral. By producing the fresh products in a way that’s more in line with the demand, less unused food has to be disposed of. By 2025, Lufthansa aims to replace all single-use plastic articles with sustainable materials.


JetBlue has recently introduced a sustainably-sourced vodka seltzer from PLANT Botanical to its inflight food and beverage offer. PLANT Botanical is a female-founded, female-funded and female-distilled company focused on better, sustainable and functional ingredients. JetBlue also offers its Business Class passengers amenity kits that focus on reusability.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines has recently become the first US airline to remove all plastic cups on board, replacing them with a more planet-friendly alternative. All inflight beverages on Alaska flights are now served in Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper cups or reusable glassware for most First-Class services. It’s a move that has allowed the airline to eliminate more than 55 million plastic cups annually.


Since February 2023, Finnair has stopped its inflight retail service. “Onboard and pre-order shopping has become a less important service among our customers,” explains Valtteri Helve, the airline’s Head of Product Offering. “In spring 2020, we announced that we were discontinuing inflight sales on our flights within the EU as part of our goal to reduce the overall weight of the aircraft and now it is time to take the next step and discontinue them worldwide.”

United Airlines

United Airlines has partnered with Los Angeles-based Impossible Foods to develop more planet-friendly vegan meals on all domestic flights of 800 miles or more. Other vegetarian and vegan meals can be ordered ahead on certain flights. Additionally, at its Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles, Newark and San Francisco Polaris lounges, United now offers ground Impossible Sausage as an optional omelette ingredient and Impossible Sausage breakfast patties in the buffet.

United Airlines vegan meal

Aer Lingus

In 2022 Aer Lingus replaced plastic cutlery with packs made from birch wood, a sustainable material, resulting in a reduction of almost 23 tonnes of single-use plastics per year. It also introduced a digital alternative to newspapers and magazines on board, which has resulted in it being able to save 14 tonnes of paper each year.


Emirates’ Economy Class amenity kits are reusable, made from washable kraft paper and contain durable travel essentials made from environmentally-friendly materials such as rice paper, wheat straw and rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate). The airline’s complimentary toy bags, baby amenity kits and plush toys are also made from recycled plastic bottles.


Latam has reduced 77% of its onboard single-use plastic (equivalent to 1.485 tons) by replacing it with more sustainable materials, including bamboo mixers, paper ribbons to wrap blankets and pillows, sugar cane caps and a new amenity kit. It has also launched ‘Recycle your Journey’, which allows the airline to recycle waste collected on board in domestic flights, setting aside aluminium, glass and plastic.

Air France

For flights departing from France, the meals served onboard Air France are prepared locally from 100% French meat, dairy and eggs. The airline claims it uses sustainable fishing and provides a systematic choice of vegetarian dishes in all classes. Air France has also introduced pre-ordering for meals in Business Class, which has resulted in a reduction of hot dish loading ratio by 20%, thus reducing onboard waste and weight.

British Airways

British Airways is removing all plastic bags from flights and introducing amenity kits and duvets made from recycled plastic. It has installed water taps in its airport lounges, saving approximately 1 million glass bottles a year, and the removal of plastic packaging from its World Traveller Plus blankets, saving 20 tonnes of single-use plastic last year.