Love it or hate it: Singapore Airlines’ new Economy Class boxed meals

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SIA Economy passengers on short-haul routes have been receiving meals in paper boxes. Is this the future, or an experiment doomed to fail?

In December 2020, Singapore Airlines debuted a radical new Economy Class meal concept on its short-haul flights. Passengers on flights of 3.5 hours and below would receive meals in paper boxes with bamboo cutlery, instead of the traditional plastic casseroles, aluminium foil and plastic-wrapped metal cutlery.

SIA’s new Economy Class meal concept

This new concept has been in the wild for more than a year now, but it’s only recently with the surge of revenge travel that passengers are beginning to encounter it in earnest. 

While Singapore Airlines has cited numerous environmental and practical benefits of the new meal concept, it was always bound to divide opinion. Indeed, there’s been numerous complaints regarding the boxes, with at least one going viral enough to warrant an official response.

But could we now be seeing a temporary return of the casseroles? I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, here’s what the storm in a meal tray is all about. 

The boxes vs casseroles debate

SIA’s new Economy Class meal concept | Photo: Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines’ new Economy Class meal concept can be found on all short-haul flights under 3.5 hours. At the time of writing, this includes the following destinations:

✈️ Singapore Airlines Flights <3.5 hours
  • Bali
  • Bangkok
  • Brunei
  • Hanoi
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Jakarta
  • Kuala Lumpur*
  • Manila
  • Medan
  • Penang*
  • Surabaya
  • Yangon
*Meals are not provided on flights to Kuala Lumpur. For flights to Penang, a packaged snack is served

Singapore Airlines asserts that the new meal concept is superior for several reasons:

  • Paper boxes allow the serving of 40 new menu items like congee or mee siam, which would not be possible with traditional casseroles
  • Paper boxes retain heat longer, keeping food hot even for the last passengers to be served
  • Paper boxes are made from Forest Stewardship Council certified paper, and together with bamboo cutlery cut the overall weight of meals by 50%, lowering fuel consumption
  • Paper boxes can be converted into refuse-derived fuel, generating 60% less waste than before

While I don’t dispute any of that, let’s not pretend there aren’t cost savings for Singapore Airlines too. That doesn’t invalidate the entire exercise of course, but will invariably attract accusations of greenwashing.

The main problem, as I see it, is that the optics are bad. Singapore Airlines insists that the paper boxes hold the same quantity of food as before (because the increase in depth compensates for the loss in width), but since people are generally better at gauging width than depth, the first impression many have is that their meal has gone on a diet. 

New Economy Class meal concept

Then there’s the presentation. Dull brown boxes tend to remind one of takeout food, and bamboo cutlery cannot replace the tactile feel and heft of metal. It gives off a low cost carrier vibe, which is rather out of sync with Singapore Airlines’ premium positioning. 

In terms of what’s under the hood, YMMV. When the meals debuted at the Inside Singapore Airlines event, notable lifestyle influencer Ong Ye Kung posted the following images:

It looks pretty decent actually, but not every single meal is going to be painstakingly plated for that Insta-perfect photo. 

Sometimes the presentation is a lot more mundane…

Chicken sausage breakfast
Nasi lemak
Seafood noodles

…and other times, well, let’s just say it works better than any Jenny Craig diet. 

Photo credit: @HoreHare71

Then there’s the user experience issues. The narrow box opening makes it difficult to do the traditional “use fork to push food into spoon”, and the bamboo spoon is too shallow for enjoying gravy or soupy dishes, the very reason why these boxes were designed in the first place. 

Shallow spoon

For the record, I’ve had some delicious meals served in these boxes- congee and laksa are dishes for which the design excels. Moreover, I tend to fill up in the lounge, which makes short-haul meals relatively unimportant. 

Economy Class laksa meal

That said, not every passenger has lounge access, and those with tight connections may well be relying on this as their primary source of sustenance. So the negative sentiment is certainly understandable, and I can’t help but wonder if some aesthetic tweaks to the packaging could go a long way towards addressing them. 

Is the new concept being rolled back?

While Bangkok is well within the 3.5 hour radius, on a recent flight I was surprised to receive the following. 

Economy Class meal on SQ708 to BKK

No prizes for spotting the difference- the traditional casseroles and metal cutlery have returned. I can’t say for certain whether that made tom yum vermicelli with prawns taste any better, but it was a blast of nostalgia, a throwback to pre-COVID meals. 

Now, I doubt that Singapore Airlines would U-turn on a concept that has clearly been in the works for a long time. In all likelihood, it’s probably a supplier shortage that’s led them to switch back to the old-style setup. In any case, I’ve reached out to Singapore Airlines to get clarification, and will update this article if/when I hear back. 

💬 SIA’s Response

Here’s a reply from an SIA spokesperson

  • There is a temporary shortage of the leak-proof boxes that are used for our short-haul Economy Class meals due to pandemic-related supply chain constraints.
  • SIA is working closely with our suppliers to resume the supply of these items at the earliest possible time.
  • In the interim, we have temporarily replaced the box with our casserole service ware on certain short-haul routes. These meal services will feature many of the same in-flight menu options that are available with the leak-proof boxes.
  • The shift towards the sustainable leak-proof meal packaging on short-haul flights is part of SIA’s continuous efforts to enhance customer experience by offering a greater variety of meals.
  • It is also an important step in our sustainability efforts goals, helping to reduce both fuel burn and meal waste.
  • This was not a cost-saving exercise, and there are no cost-savings from the switch to this environmentally-friendly meal packaging.

If you’ve been on a recent <3.5 hour Economy Class flight, do weigh in: did you get the old style or new style meal?

Conclusion

A picture that’s promising to some, ominous to others | Photo: Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines’ new Economy Class meal concept is intriguing, but was always going to be a tough sell. I don’t doubt the environmental benefits, though passengers need to be convinced those haven’t come at the expense of quantity and quality. 

If my recent experience is anything to go by, however, you might still get to enjoy the old-style meals on your upcoming flight. 

Have you experienced the new Economy Class meals before? What do you think?

Aaron Wong
Aaron Wong
Aaron founded The Milelion to help people travel better for less and impress chiobu. He was 50% successful.

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Eatmyfish

Dear SQ, The new look is not bad to be honest. I think the brown boxes are lovely! In fact, I like the paper cup more than those tiny plastic cups of the past. Further, it does keep the drink warm for a longer period of time. It is easier to hold the tall box up to eat then the shallow casseroles. But of course, there is room for improvement (for all classes) They should allow the lid of the box to be removed completely, just like the desert box. The lid keeps flipping back when you bring the box… Read more »

chk

I’ve flown to 3 regional countries since 1 May 2022. The lid…..well, I didn’t have that much issue with it, eating with fork in one hand and holding the box near my mouth with the other hand. My latest flight on 24 June was Braised beef with noodles plus Udders Dark Choc ice-cream. I’m fine with it and finished everything even though I had a few bites at Plaza Premium and SQ Gold Lounge. Some prob will say the braised beef was a bit dry and hard (Hee Hee) I was more disappointed with SQ Gold Lounge serving breakfast dishes… Read more »

CSS

Though I rarely eat anything except maybe a cup of tea or coffee or a glass of coke during my regular bi-weekly biz trip to Bangkok and Jakarta, I fully support the move away from plastics.

Wei Quan

Finally someone calling it out as what it is: Greenwashing.

It’s funny how that’s the only argument the SQ social media team uses to respond to people calling out the lack of food quality.

Salmon Lee

I thought there was nothing wrong with using paper boxes, and bamboo cutleries. It’s the design of the boxes which makes it look tacky. And importantly, the taste of the food is erratic, and without fruits and more premium-looking snacks / desserts by the side, it just drags down the quality of the whole experience. But it’s not an SQ-exclusive problem anyway, so I see little use of complaining; I actually did when I travelled last year for the first time after two years but that was that.

Sean

I also got served the more tradtional style on SIN-BKK, though I always order Indian veg special meal.

Lam

Indian veg meal is the best kept secret of SQ. Curry hits differently at 33,000 feet

Nathaniel Yeo

Anyone who’s ever organised a party will know bamboo cutlery are so much more expensive than plastic ones! If you use bamboo cutlery for your parties, it’s considered atas. So how come it’s the opposite in airline food? For the record I hated the white dish the meals used to come in – I’d rather have porcelain than that monstrosity.

Samuel

Because it was Metal cutlery in Economy all along

Alex

The food was actually really good and stayed hot the whole time I was eating it. The congee and laksa were so yummy! I hope they don’t roll it back I enjoyed the food

Sam

– Is it really more green? To me, it seems like the inside is coated with some kind of waterproof/heat retaining layer. Assume this isn’t recyclable?
– So far, the taste has always positively surprised me. But the presentation is really terrible. It even tends to “frustrate” me a bit, as it feels that I’m getting ripped off. In French, there’s a saying “c’,est l’œil qui mange” – something in the lines of “it’s the eye that eats”. And for some reason SQ totally did not take that element into account.

Abc

They say it can be converted to refuse derived fuel. To me that says they’re not recycling it. Difficult to recycle food packaging because of the amount of contamination from the food – greased pizza boxes are a good example, they should go into the bin. So this tells me this is mainly about lowering costs by throwing out, instead of of wash and reuse like they did for the plastic containers and the metal cutlery. I find it a bit ironic that single use paper/wood is being sold to me as more green than reused plastic and metal. Bear… Read more »

Anti-boxxer

Never got these boxes on manila flights

Andy

At least have the paper box in the blue sarong kebaya print

Tony

Umm…sustainability. So I’m old enough to remember the days when SQ had porcelain meal dishes, metal cutlery and glassware in Y. That sounds pretty sustainable to me: you wash and reuse, over and over again.

I thought the whole point of sustainability was reusing things? Oh wait, it might cost money. We wouldn’t want that now, would we?

carbon

Maybe the tons of waste water and detergent is less sustainable

Captain Obvious

How heavy is the porcelain dish and metal cutlery compared the paper and bamboo? Multiply that by the number of meals.

Now take that weight and factor in the extra fuel burn and carbon being emitted.

Oh wait, you’re really just concerned about presentation.

Tony

An interesting comment. One possibility is reduce the luggage allowance from 30 kg to 20 kg. While the airlines tried very hard to scrap and reduce every kg, we have airlines increasing their allowances from 20 kg to 30 kg. But I do not think it will be very popular though.

Last edited 5 months ago by Tony
chk

Besides the washing using hot water and detergent, labour cost of sorting and packing, every utensil or container that is chipped, cracked or broken after washing and inspection has to be disposed. Else when customers get cut or injured, there be hell to pay….

Tony

I remembered as a kid living in a kampong and things were more sustainable with tonnes of recycling. A good example was the use of CB leaves for nasi lemak and other using banana leaves (especially good was the stone banana leaves) and newspaper. Once disposed of it get recycled back to soil.

chk

LOL…..I can’t imagine my braised beef noodles served in flight on real leaves and after landing, tossed out on the ground to decompose

Tony

Yah lor…SQ will get Samy Curry to do the catering hor.

Lam

The boxes are great. Did DPS in Y and thought the meal was good. Catering in general is on the up in all classes, in my experience. Clearly this is an emotive topic. I think it’s asking a lot for a Y meal to be anything special – to be honest, edible Y food already puts SQ ahead of a lot of international carriers. It’s great that people are passionate about SQ and want to hold it to a high standard. I think it’s still one of the top airlines globally. There was a ridiculous amount of plastic in the… Read more »

Tony

Looking at the optics of a box, it reminded of the shrinking meal portion of SQ over the years and meat portion seems to have reduced since the 1970s. Not that I am against it except I feel hungry even after the meals these days on a long flight. However, the new concept seems to be born out of the needs of the pandemic. Good to have more sustainability…except not the expense of decent quantity. However, if I will have to pay more than 1K for an EY ticket, it won’t be something that I will look forward to plus… Read more »

Last edited 5 months ago by Tony
Gabriel

My trip to Da Nang was the new cardboard boxes. No complaints there, cept it is indeed YMMV when it comes to meals being offered.

Andy

It seems incredible to think that this is more environmentally friendly than reusable trays and metal cutlery. I’m glad to hear the food quality is staying good. And if it’s really better for the planet I guess that’s worth the break from tradition, though I wouldn’t be keen to see it in J and F.

Romain

I have no problem with the packaging, in fact I think it’s more convenient than before where you didn’t know where to put the aluminium cover. My concern is the food.
At least when Qantas switched to single main dish on their domestic eco, they provided food that was rather good, and in a big enough portion. Here it’s frankly meh, and god help you if the dessert is ice cream. With the brand they’re using now you can literally taste the chemicals

Udders

Yup it’s trash, but it’s local so we hype it up.

Bee

While it looks stylish, but for me I prefer a wider shape. Indeed it worked well for some Asian food like noodles and might work well for pasta as well, but my western breakfast was a catastrophe. You are forced to eat from top to bottom starting from eating suasage only and ending up with plain soggy hash. So SQ should be more flexible depending on the dish served. And the wooden cutleries are not nice. While it gives an environmentally friendly vibe, but is actually making it worse considering they used metal cutleries that can be reused hundreds of… Read more »

FreqFlyer

Coming back from Bali recently, I’d say it is pretty decent. Compared to a 5 hour US domestic flight service a single Lotus Biscoff cookie, this is luxury even! Keep up the smart innovation!

Stop the wordplay

Paper boxes can be converted into refuse-derived fuel, generating 60% less waste than before.

Ah the difference between “can” and “will”.

That only applies when it’s not contaminated with food. Just admit it’s cheaper and nothing to do recycling, because there’s definitely no recycling going on here. 100% of it will end up in a bin, generating the same amount of waste as before.

Marius

Respect SIA and well done! Hopefully other airlines follow soon!

N Chong

The new paper boxes are difficult to eat out of definitely a step lower in optics. Makes the “premium” brand look budget. Definitely NOT in line with the brand.

Josh

For the airline more expensive premium price, the food seems too cheapo like those in budget airlines. Why do I have to pay so much to get a food that I can get anywhere in Singapore hawkers? This is so unrealistic and I rather take a budget airline for short haul if a premium airline price has the same lower standard.

bri

is removing starter (both short n long haul) also part of sustainability?

Vik

Love the fact that the environment is being considered but my most recent meal was the new packaging en route to Bangkok and it was mediocre pasta.

Ponnifer

I didn’t recieve this when I went to BKK over the weekend

Pat.

The new SIA box meal looks like budget airline meals. SIA is charging a premium and yet this meal boxes? I might as well book any budget airline.

Reuben

Actually I just want my bread and butter back 🙁

To Ming Ern

I flew Singapore to Phnom Penh in April 2022 and got served these paper boxed meals. Food quality and quantity were good. The only drawback is that the box opening being rather narrow and the box depth being what it is, you have to eat by layers according to how the food was stacked into the box. That makes eating the meal less enjoyable. Perhaps the box can be made a bit wider, and a bit shallower so that we don’t have to dig in deep just to get to the rice or noodles. Otherwise I like and support the… Read more »

Last edited 4 months ago by To Ming Ern
Joshua

Did no one complain about the removal of appetizer in SQ economy class?

Rika

I really appreciate their effort to be more environmental friendly by using these boxes. But what worries me the most is the chemical used is making these paper waterproof. I heard they used pfas and some plastic coating (bpa and the likes?). Are the containers really save to use to carry such hot liquid food? I travel short haul often with kids. Thats why i care. I hope they can stand up and explain that the box is also healthier on top of more environmental friendly and cheaper. But i think it is hard to beat the good old metal… Read more »

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