I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian with an annoying tendency to forget to book vegetarian meals when I go flying. When I forget to book ahead, I always ask if they happen to have an extra veg*n meal, but quite understandably they never do: they have precisely what has been pre-booked and nothing more. Which makes sense.

Whenever I do remember to book a veg meal well ahead of time, I always specify lacto-ovo vegetarian (i.e., with milk, cheese, cream, eggs, etc., just no fish or meat) if I can.

Despite this, I don’t believe I’ve ever actually been served a lacto-ovo vegetarian meal on any flight I’ve been on: the meal served is invariably vegan, despite me booking it well ahead of time as a lacto-ovo vegetarian one. Personally, I find this a bit annoying, because it means pretty much everything gets switched out for beans, rice, raw fruit, and crackers. Everyone else gets yoghurts and cakes—I get carrots and apple sauce. Boo.

I realise that the airlines don’t make the food themselves and have little control over what the dish of the day will be on any particular flight on any given day, but the fact that they do generally explicitly offer the choice between different kinds of veg*n meals would, I assume, imply that Gourmet Gate and similar flight meal companies do make these different variations of meals. If the companies that make the meals only made regular and vegan, there’d be no reason at all for the airlines to ask for any more details.

One also presumes that it would be very easy for these companies to make gradations. A lacto-ovo meal, for instance, would generally just have to switch one component (the meat in the main dish) for a veggie option, which my limited understanding of how meal factories work leads me to believe would be simpler and cheaper than a vegan meal where more or less everything is substituted. True, it would require some additional start-up cost to set up an extra packaging combination, but given the quantities of food these companies make, this extra cost doesn't seem like it ought to be prohibitive.

The way I see it, there are two basic tenets here that work against each other for the airlines:

  • Offering a broad variety of dietary options is good PR and customer service
  • Having to pay for a broad variety of dietary options is bad for business

Obviously a compromise between these two must be found. That is a given.

I have, on occasion, come across airlines who sacrificed customer service for business in this context and basically only offered a regular meal and a vegan meal. No other options. That's understandable and consistent, if not particularly satisfying for the customer.

The vast majority of airlines, however, seem to basically try to avoid the compromise altogether: they offer a full deck of dietary combinations, but once you get on the plane, they only actually provide regular or vegan.

To me, this seems to be a very strange decision. As a customer, I may be a bit disappointed to be told that I can only choose between regular and fully vegan, but at least my expectations are met. I am definitely going to be a lot more annoyed to be told that I've successfully booked a lacto-ovo meal, only to be given something different when I'm on the flight.

I have limited experience with halal, kosher, etc., but the few times I have travelled with people who booked meals like that, they have gotten special meals—not vegan ones. Conversely, as Itai mentions in the comments, lactose-intolerant people generally get served the vegan meal as well, and I've seen gluten-free bookings go the same way.

So why do airlines nearly always offer a broad variety of dietary options, including lacto-ovo vegetarian and lactose- and gluten-free, when you book and order your meal; but conflate most non-regular options and only provide a vegan option on the actual flight?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JonathanReez Jun 10 '17 at 11:03
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    FWIW my experience as a vegetarian has been totally different. I've asked for a vegetarian meal on every flight I've booked and I don't think I've ever (literally - this is not an exaggeration) been served one on a flight. When I complain, the air crew invariably decry all knowledge but - most of the time - find me a meal from somewhere, sometimes from first-class catering. It usually has yoghurt and/or eggs in it. – Matt Thrower Jun 12 '17 at 9:00
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, but 90% of the time they've taken it away and - after loud complaints - found me an alternative. I mention this purely as a counterpoint to suggest that the presumptions underpinning this question may be incorrect. – Matt Thrower Jun 12 '17 at 9:39
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    As someone who's not that familiar with the lingo, if someone went out of their way to say they were a "lacto-ovo vegetarian" I would assume it meant that they don't eat milk or egg products since the implication is that it's somehow different from "regular" vegetarian. Maybe that's what's happening. – Daniel Jun 12 '17 at 16:40
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    "A lacto-ovo meal, for instance, would generally just have to switch one component (the meat in the main dish) for a veggie option" is not necessarily correct; many other components of meals can (and often do) have non-vegetarian ingredients such as gelatin, chicken/beef stock or fat, etc. Labeling a meal as "vegetarian" would require certifying these additional components not to contain animal products as well. – technophile Jun 12 '17 at 20:02

What the other answers don't mention is that the special meal types are part of a standardized system developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA): IATA Meal Codes. These codes are used by airline Global Distribution Systems and the airline Computer Reservation Systems that back them to keep track of passengers with special service requests (there are also codes for passengers who need wheelchair assistance and other special services).

This standardization is important, because it allows for consistency across all the flights on an itinerary. You might be traveling on three different airlines, but you can request a lacto-ovo vegetarian meal (VLML) for your trip, and every airline will know what that means so they can serve you accordingly (in the ideal case where the system all works anyway). Many airlines will trim down the list of choices on their website so as to avoid disappointing people who order a birthday cake (CAKE) and find out the airline doesn't do that, but the actual set of meals that can be ordered in the booking system is anything that appears on the list of codes. There's no part of the system that says "oh, we don't have the contract catering facility in Beijing make VLML meals, so you can't choose that for this flight." One flight may offer one, one may not, but everyone uses the same codes.

However, every airline doesn't offer every type of special meal, and the meal you receive on a particular flight will depend on the airline, the route, class of service, and the catering facility the airline uses. So when the airline's computer system sees you've ordered a VLML, it instructs the catering facility to give you something that satisfies your criteria, which would include a vegan meal. That is sometimes an airline-wide policy, or it might apply just to flights from that particular station, and you could try to seek out airlines that do not have this policy where possible.

While you view special meals more akin to ordering choices off of a menu, my perception is that airlines see them more of a way of accommodating passengers with a special need. You tell them what your need is (a meal that doesn't contain fish or meat, but is allowed to contain dairy or eggs), and they give you something that fits within those conditions. They're not short order cooks allowing you to choose off a menu, but rather they are satisfying your request for a special accommodation. The list of special needs is larger than the list of available accommodations.

In short, the broad list of choices comes from the industry standard set of special meal choices, but the limited number of actual meals the airline serves comes from their desire to cut costs and simplify their operations.

You could always try to ask the crew if they have any extra non-special meal trays, telling them you don't need the entree. If they have leftover food, you could grab the yogurt or cake or other sides and enjoy them with your vegan meal.

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    You mean that CAKE is a lie? – Ulrich Schwarz Jun 10 '17 at 6:50
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    So in short: Of the 1 984 345 different human diets the airline infrastructure made 36 different categories which can be ticked off. The airlines now do not offer 36 different meals each flight, but prepare limited choices which are compatible with all 36 categories. All gung-ho diet and susceptible people get the allergen-free, religious fully-compatible, non-meat, non-colored, non-preprocessed non-taste goo, all others get the normal non-taste goo. Correctly understood? – Thorsten S. Jun 10 '17 at 23:38
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    @ThorstenS. I wouldn't even say that the limited choices are compatible with all the categories. If you request a KSML (Kosher Meal) on an airline that doesn't offer kosher food, or a VJML (Vegetarian Jain Meal) for a flight to Germany when the airline only offers them on Indian routes, you're not going to magically get a meal that satisfies your needs anyway. Some categories may simply be requests the airline doesn't fulfill on a particular route, and it's necessary to check with them in advance. – Zach Lipton Jun 11 '17 at 0:11
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    Overall, I think this answer (along with this comment to John’s answer, now in chat) does the best job of explaining the behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty that I was wondering about—particularly the bit there is no way for an airline rep to see “oh, we don't have the contract catering facility in Beijing make VLML meals, so you can’t choose that for this flight” in their system. I had actually always assumed that they could see, at least to some degree, what options would be available on a particular flight. But then, as → – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 11 '17 at 12:01
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    @Johns-305 That's essentially what my answer was trying to say. – Zach Lipton Jun 11 '17 at 22:39

Another member already mentioned in his answer (now deleted), that adding those pre-selection options is very easy compared to actually catering them. I will try to elaborate on why this makes it actually desirable to offer those options in pre-selection.

It's more intuitive

Imagine you're booking your ticket online and come to the point where you have to select your meal option. The options that are presented to you include vegan but not vegetarian, as that's not served on the flight. If this is the first time you're booking a flight, you might not know yet that there will be no specialised meals for vegetarians. In this case you might start wondering why there is no vegetarian option. Maybe it's missing? Maybe you should call the hotline and ask them why there is no vegetarian option?

If it comes to that they already wasted your time and brain power and if you actually call their hotline because of that, it will also waste the time of the person answering your call. This waste of time could easily be circumvented by just offering all options, so everyone finds their option immediately.

This problem could also be solved by putting a note next to the selection that explained why some options are missing, but this would probably not be as effective, as it is terribly hard to get a computer user to actually read notes.

You also mentioned in the comments that you usually have to declare you dietary needs by calling the airline. In this case it looks like this argument doesn't apply as the customer doesn't have to select the option theirself. However, the person answering the call still needs to make the selection and they will probably do it in a similar manner to what the customer would do when online booking.

People answering calls at companies are usually trained in some way, so the company could just train them to select vegan if someone says they're vegetarian. This would make the vegetarian options superfluous again, but you also have to consider the cost to train your employees about one more thing and while that probably doesn't add much to the overall training cost, it is probably still cheaper to skip this in training and just let the phone operators believe all the options actually matter.

I don't think this is the only motivation to offer these options, but from an IT perspective this definitely makes sense.

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    "it is terribly hard to get a computer user to actually read notes" -- pretty much sums up one of the biggest problem of Stack Exchange as well. :D – Firelord Jun 10 '17 at 4:49

Because meals are prepared on what is essentially a factory line, they are not prepared individually as a restaurant meal is. Food prep people just dish up foods to create a handfull of menus which are loaded onto multiple flights. The more special meals you create, the more workstations you need.

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    I understand that. I understand that all variations will naturally mean an increase in cost. What I don't understand is why they then offer meal types that aren't made. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 9 '17 at 16:17
  • @JanusBahsJacquet What they can supply may vary depending on the size of their presence at a given airport, and the size of the aircraft. If they get the information and their meal contractor at the airport does have the option, they can supply it. If they don't distinguish in the pre-booking, they have to go with vegan regardless of the contractor's options. – Patricia Shanahan Jun 9 '17 at 16:28
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    @PatriciaShanahan That was what I used to think, but the fact that even major airlines operating from their main hubs for long-haul flights (BA from London, Air France from Paris, KLM from Amsterdam, etc.) do this made me think differently. If even BA’s meal contractors at Heathrow don't have differing veg*n options, then who will? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 9 '17 at 16:32
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    @JanusBahsJacquet My guess would be flights from areas with large numbers of vegetarians. – Patricia Shanahan Jun 9 '17 at 16:47
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    @JanusBahsJacquet if nothing else, offering the choices gives them useful information about demand, that having one blanket choice wouldn't. – hobbs Jun 9 '17 at 18:53

I also believed that maybe some ME airlines may have multiple different vegetarian options, until I tried Qatar airways in February. They had like ten different options to choose from, but on the flight it seemed they did not have anything but "with meat" or vegan.

However, I personally know of two other reasons for your wide variety of choice:

Case 1: You can select your option for the (rare?) case that not enough vegan meals have been loaded, (maybe due to urgent rebookings?). In that case, the most lenient vegetarian will get essentially leftovers thrown together. No warm meal, which contained meat, instead, two or three each of the green salad with caesars dressing, yoghurts and cheesecakes taken from surplus meals with meat. To do this, they had to know who would eat dairy and who wouldn't. (Source: I was seated next to that poor(?) fella on a flight to Rome a few years ago.)

Case 2: There is more than just a meal on a long-distance flight. There are snacks, which may already have a vegetarian, non-vegan option. The choice on KLM once was "cheesecake" (on a side note, KLMs "cheesecake" is with Gouda, not curd) or Chicken Sandwich, with meat-eaters having choice, vegetarians being served "cheesecake" and only vegans receiving a very special treatment.

  • I left the snacks out to simplify matters, but even in cases where the snack has been something like a croissant or a piece of cake (no Gouda cake so far, though!), which was perfectly suitable for me as a lacto-ovo, I still got a box of fruit instead. Maybe I'm just unlucky with flight meals. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 9 '17 at 18:22
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    I guess in that case you'd have to ask your neighbors whether they want to trade. They won't ask you, for you have the special diet, but I guess you'll find someone like me around you, silently watering his mouth for your fruit. – Alexander Jun 9 '17 at 18:36
  • "on a side note, KLMs "cheesecake" is with Gouda, not " HEH ! :) – Fattie Jun 9 '17 at 22:17
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    @JanusBahsJacquet It could indeed have been bad luck - or just regular luck instead of good luck - I once got an ovo-lacto-meal (had booked that weeks in advance though and it was from the airline's home airport to India) but otherwise my experience was very similar to yours. – Sumyrda Jun 9 '17 at 22:25

Consider that the yoghurt and cakes they serve might not actually be vegetarian - gelatin (could be in both), insect-derived red colorings (cake), potentially tallow/lard-derived emulsifiers (the E47x group of food additives... could be in both), natural flavourings of unknown origin, bone char derived sugar, casein from rennet-containing cheese are all ingredients that could be inacceptable to a person of which the only thing you know is that they ordered an ovo lacto vegetarian meal (to somebody insisting on 100% ovo lacto vegetarian diet, all of these would be unacceptable!).

Keeping an eye on what nationalities of passengers tend to fly along on your common routes could give good hints whether eg AVML style meals might be a common order and well available.

  • These are significant points but rational and professional caterers have all this raw ingredient information automated. They will also often move over to more universal ingredients without allergens or customer red flags so that they can be more flexible in their catering. The Vegan meal may not be Halal or Kosher procedurally but ingredient wise could easily be made to comply. – KalleMP Jun 13 '17 at 3:44
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    Yes, but part of OPs question was why they won't serve the yoghurt and cake as part of a vegetarian meal - probably because they shouldn't! – rackandboneman Jun 13 '17 at 8:06
  • Sure, special options/combinations are a possibility but not part of the economy class service, if requested by a passenger and time permits. While ingredient information will be available at the caterers the cabin staff are not expected or trained to determine if an unbranded yoghurt contains bovine or porcine gelatine as a thickener or if a cheese has bovine or microbial rennet, making a lethal mistake on an allergen with an unaccompanied child would be hard to justify. – KalleMP Jun 13 '17 at 18:21

Another reason to offer all of those requests even when they'll all be fulfilled with a vegan meal is to track them.

If an airline only offers vegan and non-vegan then they have very little basis for actually offering anything in between in the future as there will be virtually no record that anyone wanted them.

If lacto-ovo vegetarianism became the next big fad among people who previously had no medical or religious dietary restriction, an airline could see a large uptick in those requests and order an actual meal that meets it, then subsequently promote that to capitalize on a growing group of people who are underserved by other airlines.

That's probably never happened (it's just one example of how that data may be used), but it's the best way to track the data for such a use (or for many other uses I haven't thought of).

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    -1 for "the next big fad" and describing any sort of vegetarianism as not being a "real dietary restriction". In my experience, lacto-ovo vegetarianism is the most common form of vegetarianism. – David Richerby Jun 11 '17 at 1:11
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    @DavidRicherby I believe he is using the term ‘real dietary restriction’ in its most literal sense, referring to people who are unable to eat certain things without suffering adverse physical reactions, like coeliacs (with gluten) or people with intolerance or allergies towards lactose, peanuts, tomatoes, etc. Unlike these, I have never heard of anyone who was somatically allergic to meat (or non-kosher/non-halal food, for that matter)—those are self-imposed dietary restrictions based on asomatic reasons. Currently, gluten- and lactose-free foods are a bit of a ‘fad’ in many Western → – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 11 '17 at 11:37
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    → countries, even though the vast majority of people who join in this ‘fad’ are not allergic to either. To a certain extent, vegetarianism has become a bit of a ‘fad’ as well, in that it is an order of magnitude more common and popular now than it was a mere ten years ago, with many people becoming vegetarians just to try it because of its increasing popularity (and of course to see if it benefits them), rather than—as was previously almost always the case—for purely ethical reasons. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 11 '17 at 11:39
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    @David Everything is likely to cause offence to someone. My usage of the term ‘dietary restriction’ is no different from common usage, except perhaps in being somewhat broader (many people would probably not consider avoiding things you don’t like a dietary restriction, for instance). Of course all dietary restrictions are real in that they are not fictitious, and I would not use the word real to distinguish between, say, somatic and asomatic types myself; I never said I would. I would absolutely consider risk of death a more real restriction on someone’s ability to eat than a self-imposed → – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 11 '17 at 15:21
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    @DavidRicherby I never suggested that vegetarianism is not real (it clearly is). I was using dietary restriction in the sense of someone being physically unable to eat a certain food without severe consequences. It is a fact that conditions such as celiac have existed for a long time, yet much more recently people who are able to eat gluten have decided they don't want to. The reasons are immaterial; the results are clear: GF options are more widely available than ever. That was my only point. – briantist Jun 11 '17 at 16:41

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