Vistara pounces as AI ends non-veg food in domestic economy

Loss-making Air India, saddled with massive debts, has stopped serving non-vegetarian food to economy class passengers on all domestic flights since mid-June to cut costs.

Six months ago, the national carrier had already stopped serving non-vegetarian food on domestic flights lasting less than 90 minutes. Now, it has ''decided to serve vegetarian meals in our economy class seats on domestic flights'', Air India chairman and managing director Ashwani Lohani told the media. Non-vegetarian meals would continue to be served in business and executive class on domestic as well as international flights.

The national carrier took the 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 had happened a few times in the past,'' Lohani said.

Last year, a ruckus occurred on a Shanghai-Delhi-Mumbai flight of Air India after some passengers complained that they were served non-vegetarian fare instead of their preferred choice of vegetarian food.

Rival full-service carrier Vistara was quick to take a dig at Air India. "Chicken or vegetarian? We leave that choice to you," Vistara posted on its Twitter handle in an obvious dig at 'the Maharaja', adding that it will continue to allow passengers the food of their choice.

"Vistara serves two vegetarian and non-vegetarian meal choices each in Business Class and options between vegetarian and non-vegetarian in Economy and Premium Economy class. We serve a combination of everyday favourites, regional and international specials, in six meal cycles at a time," the airline said.

The Tata-Singapore Airlines joint venture also provides Starbucks coffee on all its flights.

It is something of an irony that Air India too was owned by the Tatas till the government took it over.

Passengers too were far from happy. ''A full-service carrier like Air India should not resort to such a measure. Even a low-cost carrier gives the passengers their food options. Air India should have conducted a passenger survey before taking this drastic step, and it should immediately withdraw the decision,'' said Mahesh Y Reddy, secretary-general, Air Passengers Association of India.

Undeterred, Lohani also said that the airline will be taking more such steps in future to reduce its expenses, including in the catering department.

A senior official of Air India said the decision should lead to Rs8 crore in annual savings for the ailing airline.

Air India now spends Rs400 crore on catering on its domestic and international flights every year, an Air India executive told The Hindu.

Another executive said there was an increasing preference among passengers for vegetarian food. ''The number of vegetarian passengers is increasing. Generally, we uplift 70 per cent vegetarian meals and 30 per cent non-vegetarian meals. However, because of the increasing preference for vegetarian meals, wastage of non-vegetarian meals became high. Also, we run short of vegetarian meals, leading to complaints. So we decided to serve only vegetarian meals in certain sectors,'' he said.

The official said half the number of passengers did not specify their meal preference at the time of booking. As a result, he said, the airline was ''kept in the dark'' about their choice.