Nikita Martynyuk

Nikita Martynyuk, Chief Commercial Officer of Aero Trade Company, speaks about burgers and restaurant food on board of aircraft, the passengers’ demand for the duty-free shops, and about the watches being the most frequent in-flight purchase.

Aero Trade Company delivers catering services to AZUR air. Tell us a little about that airline.

It is one of this country’s major charter carriers: according to the Rosaviatsiya (Russian Federal Air Transport Agency), it consolidated its position in the rating of the major Russian airlines. Their first flight was in December 2014. Since then, AZUR air operates international flights, thus meeting the needs of Russian tour operators.

Due to the current crisis, the company reoriented the business towards the flights within Russia, which was not operated before. Nowadays, they operate flights to Khakassia and resort destinations, such as Sochi and Anapa. They also operated many evacuation flights from the South American countries, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, requested by the Rosaviatsiya.

In what your work consists and how do you cooperate with AZUR air?

The business operation of Aero Trade is engaging, very diverse and unique, in its own way. Our operations depend directly on the airline’s needs and the passengers’ demands. For example, we have been cooperating with Transaero for ten years and have been providing a vast range of services, from one-time-use headrest covers that our employees attached to the seats before the flights, to the delivery of meals directly from Cafe Pushkin restaurant. Every day, a vehicle where a certain temperature was observed, brought meals to the warehouse of Aero Trade, following which our employees drew up documents for their customs clearance and delivered meals packed in special aviation equipment, to the aircraft of Transaero.

We interact with AZUR air airline in four fields. The first is filling the minibars, which include water, juice, alcohol and snacks. We find the best suppliers, purchase the products and deliver them on board of the aircraft. The airline includes the cost of those products in the business class tickets.

The second field is the in-flight trade. This includes duty-free products as well as snacks, alcoholic beverages, sandwiches, cheese plates, etc. A passenger can purchase all of this for an extra payment, and pay in flight in cash or using a bank card. The latter became possible thanks to the cooperation with JoinPAY.

I should say that we constantly train the flight attendants and the sales managers of the shops, provide information about the products’ properties, information on the brands. And, of course, we do our best to motivate them to sell. We consider the flight attendants our employees and pay them a commission.

The third field is pre-order of the duty-free products and their delivery to the passenger seat. If you do not like to get to an airport far in advance, or if you do not want to go shopping with children and to carry heavy bags, you can order products on our website, and a flight attendant will give them to you right after the take-off. They will cost you 5 to 10 percent cheaper than in a duty-free shop.

And the last service that we provide to AZUR air is the pre-order of the meals from the restaurants and their delivery to the passenger seat.

It seems to me that the in-flight meals business became more complex and diverse over the last years. Are the questions like «chicken, meat or fish», common for all airlines, becoming a thing of the past?

There are two key aspects. There is a rule of Rosaviatsiya that binds an airline to provide meals in the flights that last more than four hours. The question about chicken and fish will still be asked there for a long while. In cases of the short-time flights, this service will be left to the discretion of the carriers, and each of them will implement it their own way. You have surely noticed that the price of a ticket of Aeroflot to a certain destination is higher than that of Ural Airlines or AZUR air. It is because the national carrier includes additional services such as meals, an individual set of accessories for travel (slippers, earplugs, mask) into the price of the flight tickets.

If you want your flights to be cheaper, you have to expect that the meals will not be factored in the initial cost, but you will be able to purchase it separately. This is how EasyJet or Ryanair work, for example. The time shows that it is a successful business design because there is a steady demand for such a service.

It seems to me that the future belongs to the freedom to choose the services that one wants to receive during a flight. It is something that I dream to end up with as a passenger. I want some kind of price calculator to be available when I buy a ticket so that I know clearly what is included in the cost of a ticket and what additional services I can receive. I think that this is fair and this is how the thing should be.

Have you done any research on how the taste of the food change at high altitudes?

We have not done it ourselves, but every year we attend international conferences and exhibitions such as the World Travel Catering & Onboard Services Expo in Hamburg where such matters are actively discussed.

All major air carriers either engage the relevant scientific societies to carry out experiments and researches or create their own laboratories. Singapore Airlines even has its own aircraft cabin simulator in Changi airport where skilled cooks test the ready meals in the conditions most closely resembling a flight.

In fact, scientists have long come to the opinion that at a high altitude (starting from ten thousand meters) the food taste sensations change. It happens due to low air pressure, insufficient moisture and noise in the cabin. Curiously enough, a human can taste the hot, sour and bitter food very well, but becomes unsusceptible to the salt and sweet tastes. Due to an overdried air, the sense of smell also stiffens, while it plays a key role in the perception of the food that we eat. This is why the head chefs and airlines resort to many tricks: they use the flavor boosters, turn on pleasant music to reduce the background noise, give the sprays for nose moisturizing, serve the meals on the conventional plates with the metal flatware instead of the plastic dishware or foil trays.

I have long been a passionate wine enthusiast, which is why I have always paid much attention to what alcoholic beverages are served during the flights. So, I can say with confidence that the taste of the wine is also perceived differently at a height. It is better to choose the beverages that contain fewer acids but have strong fruit flavors. Another important advice: drink alcohol at the beginning of your way above the clouds, while your organism is not yet «dried».

How high are the requirements for the delivery of the «aircraft» food?

Pretty high. First of all, we should check the condition of the ordered meal in which it is delivered to our warehouse, check whether the temperature requirements in the vehicle were observed or not. In case of irregularities, we would rather reject such an ordered meal than risk a passenger’s health. When an international flight is concerned, we have to file documents for the customs clearance of the meals and carry them through the security service’s introscope so that they can make sure that there are no foreign objects in there. After that, the meals packed in the thermal equipment is transported on board of an aircraft.

Delivery of meals from the restaurants is even more complicated because the food should be pre-packed in special dishware. Also, you should take into account that an aircraft oven cannot warm up to the same temperatures as a restaurant oven. Because of that, the taste of a rewarmed meal can change, and this fact should be taken into account when preparing a meal. In addition, a flight attendant should have clear instructions on how to serve a meal. Sometimes, each ingredient should be rewarmed separately at different temperatures and then they should be put together into one dish.

Aero Trade has nine duty-free shops: eight are based in airports and one in a railway station. Tell me about the latter, I never knew that such services can be provided for land transport.

Many do not. In fact, this shop is the first in Russia! It is our greatest pride. Already in 2012, we thought that it would be great to make a duty-free shop for the railroad passengers. We started to look at all destinations and understood that there was the only appropriate route: Allegro train that shuttles between Saint Petersburg and Helsinki. After it departs from Finlyandsky railway station, there is only one stop – in Vyborg, when it returns from Finland. This conforms to the main rule of the duty-free trade: when people purchase a product at the Russian border, they shall not go out before arrival to another country. Next, there was a whole challenge ahead of us. We have been drawing up supporting documents and writing letters to various authorities for three years, we went through fire and water. Only after Vladimir Putin’s immediate decree have we managed to implement this project, and we are very proud of it. We became the pioneers!

Another good news for the duty-free fans is that we opened a duty-free shop in the arrivals area of Roshchino airport in the city of Tyumen. Now, the passengers can do shopping after their arrival at the destination.

Do you not find that people started to visit the duty-free shops less often over the last years?

It is indeed the case. Statistically, only 35% to 40% of the total number of passengers do shopping in the duty-free shops. However, even now duty-free shops are in demand. We constantly improve ourselves, adopt the experience of the major foreign companies from Singapore, South Korea, China and Europe.

The travel retail exclusive products that cannot be found on the domestic market are still being put up for sale in the duty-free shops. These include, among others, the famous alcoholic cocktails in cans and candies in interactive packages that can be easily converted into toys. By the way, sometimes larger volumes of confectionery brands are sold in duty-free shops than on the domestic markets. So that the juice worth the squeeze. Besides, the miniatures, i.e. the sets of top cosmetic and perfume brands in mini formats, are produced exclusively for the duty-free shops.

Speaking of the perfume. Nowadays, there is a high demand for the niche fragrances that can only be bought in the brand boutiques on the domestic market. Many of these brands do not want to go to the high-volume chains, but they are glad to go to the shelves of the duty-free shops. And it is convenient for the purchasers because they can become aware of the niche fragrances of various brands in one place.

What duty-free products are in the most demand in flight?

Curiously enough, watches is one of the hottest products. You could notice that much attention is given to them in the onboard catalogues. One would think that it is an accessory that has to be considered and tried on. But maybe it is the free time in flight that allows doing so without haste. Besides, as a rule, the manufacturers assign the prices in the duty-free catalogues that are lower than the prices on the domestic market. For example, if you buy the latest-model Hugo Boss watches in an aircraft, you will save 20% to 40% of its «land» cost. You will also be given a brand pencil.

Also, the alcohol and the miniatures are in great demand. The perfume sells well, although the rules of flight prohibit to spray it to have a smell of it. The compression socks sell readily, especially during the long flights and, funnily enough, so-called Miami tattoos, the temporary tattoos that remain during the vacations, and then disappear. When we make an in-flight trade catalogue, we always try to find an engaging feature that would make you think I need this right now! or This will be useful when I am on vacation or Hey, this would make a cool present! The evidence from practice shows that those are the three impulses that push a person to buy and actually capture sales.

You actively use JoinPAY service to accept payments from the purchasers. How does it help to save and where can one use it?

For now, we do not use it in the shops, but we are plan on implementing a new product shortly, namely the fast payments system by JoinPAY that works on the principle of instant payment through the QR code scanning. None of the duty-free operators has come to this payment solution yet, and I am sure that we will be the first.

However, it’s been a year since we have been using JoinPAY terminals on board of the aircraft. Before that, we tried the services of various banks, and we always had problems with payments: offline transactions would not be approved. The passengers were nervous when they could not make a card payment for a purchased item. I announced the problem to the guys from JoinPAY, and one week later they delivered a test model of the terminal. We tested it on board of an aircraft, and the conversion of the cashless payments increased immediately by over 30%, and subsequently increased to 50%.

What is the course of the company’s development in the immediate future? I heard about the cooperation with Burger Heroes and Black Star Burger.

Yes, we have made a contract with them for the pre-order of meals. If you plan a flight by AZUR air and visit their website, Restaurant onboard folder, you will be redirected to the source where you can order your favorite food from Burger Heroes restaurant. This service will be available starting from 10 August. Sometime later, we will add Black Star Burger to the list of restaurants.

How well-built the logistics should be to make a meal get from a restaurant on board of an aircraft in a matter of hours...

Everything is possible if one approaches a problem consistently. Aero Trade company has been in business at the market for 30 years already, and many of our processes are well-tunedI am certain that in the area of the in-flight meals we should work for the same business design as that of Yandex.Eda, Delivery Club and other delivery services. People got accustomed to receiving any products from the shops, markets and restaurants in a matter of a couple of hours. So why not deliver them meals from their favorite restaurants on board of an aircraft? Flights by a big iron bird, especially for a long time, are certain stress by itself. It is in our power to make a trip more comfortable, and it is what we should work for. Aero Trade has its own fleet of vehicles, the issue of legal paperwork is closed, so in the future, I see our service as some kind of the equivalent of the land delivery services.

Did the pandemic significantly affect the company’s business?

Yes, things are very hard for us. We were among the first of those who stopped working in mid-March but, unlike the airports, air carriers and shops, we were not among the companies eligible to aid from the government. Thankfully, we managed to keep more than half of our staff, and I want to thank the employees who stayed with us. The circumstances of work in the duty-free shops are that if I hire ten sales managers today, they will be able to begin working in two months at best after they go through many additional approvals and acceptances. So that it is impossible to quickly solve the staff issues. Starting from 1 August, we are allowed to open shops in Moscow subject to sticking to all levels of precautions, as well as in any land retail outlet. AZUR air will begin its regular charter flights to Turkey and other resort countries starting from 10 August, and we look forward to this moment.

Speaking of the positive experience, during the pandemic we had time to look closely at our business, to transform it in some ways, to reconsider something. We did our best to make, within a minimum time, digital stories with pre-order of meals, and at last, re-launched our website. In the future, we plan to dramatically increase the range of services, to give the airlines something that no other catering operator can give. This is what we are currently the most focused on.

Aleksey Chudinov

Aleksey Chudinov

«Interactive» international agency
Marina Karandina

Marina Karandina

Passenger Transport Enterprise