HOOKAH / L Airlines > In-Flight meal experience design:
Curiosity and Freestyle: Redesigning the In-Flight Meal Experience

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What could L Airlines have been doing wrong so that customers were dissatisfied with their in-flight meal experience - on a 90 minute flight? 

This was the challenge that Tiago Cavagnaro and his innovation consultancy HOOKAH faced in Chile. However, there was a catch – the company was only about a month old. 

“To be honest, I had just come back from a week of training in Stanford, and that was it,” he shared. He only knew three rules. One, craft a specific challenge statement. Two, define and understand the user. Three, Think about the context of the user. The two templates he had in hand were only an Empathy map and a Point of View map. 

But Tiago confesses he had a magic sauce: being in the curiosity mindset. “I was crazy about it, my view of the world had shifted. And I believed it would work.” 

With experience at Stanford D-School as an Industry Coach with ADA – a software development company-, Tiago Cavagnaro is a veteran Design Thinker in his application and practice. When I reached out to ask if he would be willing to share some of his nuggets through the blog, I was surprised to hear a case from when he was still a novice.

However, he stresses that simplicity is what gives the power to design thinking. Keeping the process simple helps maintain a high level of curiosity when conducting fieldwork, and opens the eyes of the researcher to deduct creative insights from real-life situations around them. Tiago added compassionately during our interview,

From my experience, design thinking isn’t as complicated and template-driven as the industry makes it to be.

Here is the case that helped shape his elementalist design thinking approach, which he still applies to his works today. 



Crafting the Challenge: Narrowing the Scope

The “L Airlines” company was troubled by receiving bad evaluations on their in-flight meals, and was looking for a solution. With the need to align the client on the design thinking method of problem-solving, Tiago’s company dedicated their first two to three meetings solely to introducing the process. Through the meetings, the team derived the challenge of “re-designing the in-flight meal experience.” Furthermore, the scope of the challenge had to be specified; the airline wanted the solution to impact all their flights. The flights with the worst evaluation were the ones that lasted less than 90 minutes; it was more difficult to create a coherent meal experience for those that had shorter airtime. By narrowing the scope, they created a new challenge statement together: “Re-design the in-flight meal experience for flights in Chile that are less than 90 minutes.”

FIG 1. HOOKAH crafts the challenge together with L Airlines.


 Defining and Understanding the User: Research

The research started with the user’s journey map. “It was a simple line and chart of all the things the aircraft user would interact with,” Tiago says. He adds that it was more of an intuitive process: “I didn’t know how to go from crafting the challenge to empathy.” This process helped the team identify where the challenge statement was applicable and where it ended. For example, booking a flight was excluded from the research scope as it was not part of the “flight meal experience.” Tiago and his team then immersed themselves in observing and interviewing passengers to understand the aspects that were part of the experience. The airline client partners were also included in this research journey, as they had not taken short flights for several years.


I. Immersion

The team and the airline clients took the effort to take these short flights all over Chile themselves, which brought to light the users’ experiences that were otherwise invisible on paper. First of all, the participants realized that a “meal experience” for the airline user was not just the short airborne duration, but lasted from when they left their homes to when they reached their destination. For the short hour-long transportation on airline L, their customers were dedicating at least three – even up to five hours – of their day. “Our client was frustrated before that their customers expected so much from such a short trip,” Tiago reminisced. 

Second, the archetypes of the customers and their needs for the in-flight meals varied with the time and location of their flights. For example, miners from the Andes almost always took 8AM morning flights to fly back home. However, despite the early time, they requested beer and peanuts to celebrate their 3-day weekend.


II. Observation and Interview

The team conducted interviews with 25-30 passengers during their immersive experiences. These passengers were all at different points of the user’s journey, from the check-in counter, the airborne moment to collecting their luggage. Among the interviewees, there was one person in particular that gave an interesting answer. The team met an overweight woman at the airport, where she was waiting in the lounge for her short flight. While she waited, she ate a dozen donuts. When asked about the in-flight meals, she said that she wanted to eat healthy food, adding that “if I’m flying L Chile, I want to be taken care of.”

The airline client was flabbergasted at this response. The snacks that they were providing on the plane were, in fact, healthy, nutritious biscuits.

This flagged for a deeper understanding of the user’s needs. There were two contradictions in her statements. First, she said she wanted to eat healthy even when she seemed to favor unhealthier foods. Second, she called the airline by its old name and associated it with “taking care of” her. What could this imply?


+Analogies: What is the User’s Context?

“Driven by curiosity, we found similar situations all around us.” These similar situations helped the team create analogies to understand the layered issue. 

  • Situation 1:While waiting for a quick meal at a popular fast food chain restaurant, the team observed that there were two types of people ordering the hamburger sets.“I would like a small combo, with a light cola, please,” or,
    I would like a large combo, with a bigger cola, please.”Those who wanted a smaller portion of an otherwise unhealthy food also wanted their colas to be light, while those who seemed to care less about the nutrition doubled even their drinks.
  • Situation 2:While observing people buying snacks at a busy kiosk, they found that a lot of them chose the same biscuit that airline L was providing. When asked why, the buyers responded, “It’s healthy and nutritious.

The research results were varied and didn’t give a straight answer – but Tiago’s young team realized that was the point: people’s expectations were always going to be different according to the situation they were in. It was a matter of choice; whether the snack in their favor was available or not. The “unhealthy” eaters choose to have even more sugar with their big combo. The healthy biscuit eaters were its choosers at the kiosk. The miners from the Andes needed their beer. Therefore, appreciation for the meals was not going to change through a better sandwich; rather, the variable that could matter was the “feeling of being taken care” of by the airline company. Better satisfaction of in-flight meals could be tackled by giving the customers the power to choose a “better” meal for them.

L Airline customers need a way to choose what they will be eating, giving them a feeling that the airline is taking care of them, in a healthy manner.


Ideation, Prototyping and Testing

After fruitful ideation with the airline team, the designers narrowed down to the feasible food possibilities – a healthy set, and one less healthy set. As Chile’s strength is agriculture, they brought 30 different kinds of possible options to the office and prototyped there. By simulating the process with the flight attendants, the whole team found which food was possible within the timeframe and in all types of planes.

FIG 2. The re-designed in-flight menus are tested on passengers.

Then, for those that worked, they tested it on four flights, two going north and two going south. The airline used the same evaluation tool as before to test the customer satisfaction. “I remember that they were mindblown by the results,” Tiago added gleefully. The results have come out amazing – the customers were happy with having choices that took care of their needs during the flight. 

After a few more tweaks from the airline, the newly implemented five-choice option was up and running in the air. 10 years have passed since then, but the solution is still in use. “The menus have changed, but the key findings are still applied to this day,” said Tiago. 



In conclusion, Tiago’s experience with L Airlines demonstrates the power of design thinking and how it can be applied even by those who are new to the concept.

Tiago’s approach to design thinking emphasizes simplicity and curiosity. Keeping the process simple enables researchers to maintain a high level of curiosity when conducting fieldwork and to discover creative insights from real-life situations around them. He adds that this simplicity and curiosity is still the key element in his company today.

“Design thinking is awesome,” think most people who first come across it. It’s intuitive, fun and effective in solving real problems for real people. After countless blog posts, quotes, templates and perhaps some courses, it’s time to start “doing not thinking” – but where? This is a place where a lot of people find themselves stuck. Where does design thinking exist, in what form, and how can a newbie start doing it?

“I think design thinking can start anywhere,” is what Tiago would answer – and how he opened our first meeting. After all, isn’t this enthusiasm for making a real difference through human centered values what delights us as design thinking practitioners?

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The Authors

Kyurie Shin is a craft and design researcher and student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. With training in design thinking at HPI d-school, she utilizes it in researching the relationship of craftsmanship and tradition with the contemporary world.

Tiago Cavagnaro works as the CIO of a software development company these days, having founded and co-founded two start-ups by using design thinking. Prior to that, Tiago worked consulting companies in this methodology, including banking, retail, health and pension fund sector.

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