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Why vending machines may be the future of in-flight snacking

July 22, 2020
4 min read
Qantas 787-9 inaugural PER-LHR economy snack bar
Why vending machines may be the future of in-flight snacking
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Is it time for in-flight vending machines?

The coronavirus pandemic has led to major changes across the airline industry. One of the most noticeable has been airline adjustments to in-flight services to minimize onboard food and beverage service. This was done both to limit customer and flight attendant interactions and as a cost-saving measure.

Installing vending machines on airplanes would address both of these problems.

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The concept of in-flight vending machines is simple. Passengers would be able to order snacks, meals, drinks and travel accessories on their phones and then go to the machine to pick it up. Payments would be made through the app so the entire process would be nearly touchless and would require no additional human interaction.

One of the pioneers of in-flight vending systems is Tulsa-based aerospace company Nordam with its skEYE-Vend concept. It would allow passengers to browse inventory via an app, tap their phones onto the pantry-like machine to open its doors and then take out their item of choice.

Similar to the cashier-free Amazon Go stores, the systems would use artificial intelligence to track when items are removed and then automatically process payments. The systems would also help airlines manage their inventory better.

Related: In-flight service is resuming — here’s what food and drinks you can expect on your next flight

(Photo courtesy of NORDAM)

The idea made it on the shortlist for the 2019 year’s Crystal Cabin Awards, which celebrate innovations for the inside of aircraft cabins.

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The winners of the Crystal Cabin Awards are typically announced at the Aircraft Interior Show in Hamburg — the 2020 event was canceled — and the finalists sometimes include what seem like fairly far-out concepts. Perhaps that's what some may have thought about onboard vending machines, though perhaps the concept was just a bit ahead of its time.

Carlos Flores, NORDAM Vice President of Manufacturing Sales, explained to TPG: “We were thinking well ‘outside of the catering cart’ when we introduced SkEYE-Vend at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg last year, but we didn’t know just how timely it was. Our intent was to deliver an onboard storefront to generate airline revenue and resolve the 'wish I’d grabbed a bite in the terminal' hungry-passenger predicament. But the fact that it’s a nearly touch-free system – no personal interaction, no buttons to press or money changing hands – makes it a perfect solution in the era of COVID-19.”

Related: New airplane seats for the coronavirus era?

(Photo courtesy of NORDAM)

While its concept isn't nearly as developed, Seattle-based design firm Teague shares a similar vision of transforming aircraft galleys into self-service food retail areas.

Inspired by Amazon package pickup lockers and Japanese vending machines, orders would be made available for pickup via designated compartments. Meals would be stored and warmed via a robotic system.

Related: 11 memorable meals TPG staffers have had at 35,000 feet

(Photo courtesy of Bernadette Berger/Teague)

Bottom line

Air travel will not be the same in the post-coronavirus world. While some of the in-flight service cuts due to the pandemic are temporary, others may be here to stay. Airlines already began moving toward the à la carte “buy on board” concept before the pandemic and will be more desperate to boost their revenue streams going forward.

Many of the new ideas for cabin interiors never make it past the concept stage, and that's possible here. After all, Qantas ended up scrapping plans for sleeping compartments on the cargo deck and it doesn't look like any airline will install double-decker premium economy seats anytime soon.

Only time will tell if in-flight vending machines actually come into fruition, but if they do, hopefully, airlines will use the technology to offer incentives for frequent flyers and co-branded airline cardholders.