How Airlines Make Meals For Thousands Of People

How Airlines Make Meals For Thousands Of People

Airplane food used to
look like this. And this. But now can look
something like this. For many people economy class used
to mean soggy pasta, rubbery eggs and dried out chicken. For a time, U.S. airlines even stopped serving free
meals altogether in economy class. But in 2019 U.S. airlines posted their tenth straight
year of profitability and premium and economy cabins are seeing
more food options than ever before. At Delta, American and
United, airlines work with celebrity chefs to help craft their menus for
people sitting at the front of the plane. Passengers are a lot
pickier than they used to be. There seem to be a lot more vegans. There seem to be a lot where
people who are looking for high protein and low carb and gluten free
and airlines are getting those requests and they’re trying to change
their menus to follow that. In 2018, almost 2.8 million people flew in
and out of U.S. airports every day an almost
five percent increase from 2017. Those extra travelers have forced airlines
to rethink not only their menus, but also the way
they deliver meals to passengers. With more people traveling than ever
before, how do airlines make meals for thousands of people
and what are the costs? Airlines in the U.S. started
flying in the early 1920’s. At the time, airplane engines were
noisy and planes faced heavy winds flying at low altitude. To provide comfort for weary
passengers airlines offered food. Some airlines had contracts with
local restaurants who supplied food for flights on a regular basis. Others made stops mid-flight at restaurants
on the ground en route to their final destination. It was much more common to, for
example, fly from New York to Chicago and land in the middle at a
small airport and make sure that the small airport had some
kind of restaurant open. And so this is where
the passengers would be fed. In the 1930s, airline
meals started to evolve. In 1930, United Airlines
became the first U.S. carrier to enlist the
help of flight attendants. The stewardesses doubled as registered
nurses who passed out snacks while also helping passengers
who became airsick. In 1936, United opened its
first flight kitchen in Oakland, California, serving hot meals including
fried chicken and scrambled eggs. But it was a slow service
because, in fact, a flight attendant was there more as a nurse to help
you deal with your fright of being in the air or not feeling well
after having eaten on the ground. The Boeing 247, unveiled in 1933, was
considered by many to be the first modern air passenger plane. The planes seated 10 passengers and had
a cruising speed of 155 miles per hour. At the time, everyone
on the plane flew first class. The vast majority of passengers
were wealthy, male and mostly business executives. Technical improvements during World War
II allowed airlines to fly bigger planes longer distances. By the late 1940’s, propeller planes flew
50 to 60 people at a time. You’re not going to have a movie,
you’re not going to have music, so what are you going to do for these,
say, on average, 12 to 18 hours that a transatlantic flight
is going to take? Of course, the answer
is drink and food. For some, the 1950’s and 60’s were
seen as the Golden Age of air travel. At the front of the
plane, airlines offered champagne and lobster thermidor. Food was served on white
tablecloths and fine China. But for the masses, the introduction
of jet engines in the late 1950’s launched the era
of the economy class. The 1950’s announced
a class divide. This is when you
start seeing plastic wear. In the early 60’s, airline catering
was still generally part of the airline operations. Airlines relied on local airport
restaurants or local airport hotels. But with an increase in passengers,
carriers struggled to keep up with demand. In the late 60’s
and early 70’s, more airlines either started their own in-house catering
businesses or outsourced the work to third-party private
catering companies. Historians say meals were
reportedly good but dry. Food was cooked on or near
the airport to preserve freshness and avoid contamination. With the launch of the Boeing 747
in 1970, planes could now carry up to 500 passengers forcing airlines and
flight attendants to feed even more passengers. The 1970’s brought about other
sweeping changes for the airlines. Rising fuel costs from two separate
oil crises gave carriers eager to cut costs an incentive to
trim their food budgets. And the Airline Deregulation Act of
1978 gave legacy carriers a new competitor – low-cost airlines. Budget airlines allowed travelers to buy
tickets for as little as $25 making passengers pay extra for
soft drinks and snacks. Cost cutting continued into the
1980’s when American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall famously removed an olive
from every salad in first class saving the carrier
$40,000 in 1987. It’s in the details. Are you going to include three
cherry tomatoes in that salad that you’re serving to economy class or
can they do with two cherry tomatoes? That’s laughable from our
vantage point but when you’re trying to serve 400 passengers and
the big flying metal tube, that’s going to make a
difference for the accountants. In the early 2000’s airline faced falling profits following the 9/11
terrorist attacks and the SAR’s epidemic. From 2001 through 2005. U.S. carriers lost a record $60
billion, according to Airlines for America, an industry, trade
and lobbying group. To save money many
airlines stopped serving meals. Airline meals had actually
gone out of fashion. The airlines stopped serving them when
they were in these dire financial straits after 9/11, there were
a series of bankruptcies and then followed by a series of mergers
and airlines were looking to cut costs wherever they could. But by 2019, U.S. airlines posted their tenth
year of profitability. In order to compete for those
economy class passengers many airlines brought the free meal back. One of the biggest challenges airline
chefs face is how do you prepare hot meals for
thousands of people simultaneously? The answer, it takes an army. Emirates flight catering located at Dubai
Airport makes an average of 225,000 meals a day
for over 500 flights. To get the job done it requires
a culinary team of more than 11,000 people, including 1,800 chefs. The facility operates 24 hours a
day, 365 days a year. Darren Bott is Emirates Airline
vice president of catering. Emirates spends more than a billion
dollars a year around the world on food and beverage,
a ccording to Bott. Because of the size and scope of
who we are, we’re running in excess of 7,000 menus a year. The whole exercise takes minimum of
12 months, really from start to finish to to start from creating
new dishes in that concept development facilitate to ultimately getting
those onboard in flight. Because Dubai is in the desert, almost
all the food used in the kitchen has to be imported. Fruits and vegetables come from Europe,
berries from the US, beef and lamb comes from Australia, and
poultry comes from South America. Meal production starts roughly 48
hours prior to take off. In addition to a bakery, a butchery
and a vegetable prep area, the facility also has a Japanese, an
Indian and a Middle Eastern kitchen. In 2018, Emirates Flight Catering
customers consumed 110 million meals, including 1,400 tons of potatoes,
72 million bread rolls, 61 tons of strawberries and
188 tons of salmon. Every raw materials principally imported, which
is a massive and very complicated supply chain
and logistics challenge. Once meals are cooked, they are plated,
placed in a cart, put into refrigerated vehicles and then
loaded onto the plane. A fully loaded A380 can hold anywhere
from 40 to 60 airline meal carts weighing more than
nine metric tons. Airline catering is an almost $6
billion business in the U.S., according to IBISWorld, a
market research firm. While a few airlines like
United Airlines have some in-house catering, most meals are provided
by third party airline catering companies. In the U.S. LSG Sky Chefs, Gate Gourmet and Flying
Food Group are three of the biggest operators and have kitchens on
or near airports around the country. Together, they make up
nearly half of the U.S. airline catering market. In 2019 L SG Sky Chefs
had estimated revenue in the U.S. of $1.6 billion, Gate Gourmet had estimated
revenue of $714 million and Flying Food Group had estimated
revenue of $490 million dollars. They are all private but from what
the companies have revealed to the public – In the U.S., LSG Sky Chefs had estimated
net income of $61.5 million in 2019, Gate Gourmet had
estimated net income of $61.2 million and Flying Food Group had
estimated operating income of $29.8 million. Airlines face a number of hurdles getting
hot meals to customers – no open flames on a plane means
everything has to be reheated. Another big problem? Your tastebuds are dulled at
high altitudes, meaning your perception of saltiness and sweetness drops. So, your plane food probably tastes
more bland than it actually is. Let’s look at how United
the sole major U.S. carrier to handle its catering
in-house designs its menus. United distributes more than 50
million meals a year. Menu design can be anything from
redesigning the breakfast service to redeveloping United’s first class
Polaris dinner service. Gerry Gulli is one of
United Airlines two top chefs. He manages more than 2,500 catering
employees and works with a team of design chefs from United and
chefs from their partners at Gate Gourmet and LSG Sky Chefs. Over the course of several days,
the chef’s test different recipes and tweak them. We test everything
and put it through how it’s actually going to be
handled on the plane. We just don’t want to come up
with some great new fancy ideas. We just want to make sure that
the outcome is going to be executed the way we want it
day in and day out. The team also takes into
account feedback from customers, flight attendants and their
data analytics team. Anything that happens on an
airplane can immediately become viral. You serve a bad meal and it’s going
to be on Instagram, it’s gonna be on Twitter. So airlines sort of
don’t want that embarrassing PR. Singapore Airlines produces about 40
million meals per year. To keep its offerings fresh the
carrier changes its menu weekly on regional flights and monthly
on international flights. We rely on expertise of the local
caterers to advise us what fruit and vegetables in season, what fish is
great this month and then we map that out over the
course of the year. Despite those efforts, airlines like
Singapore still face logistical challenges. It can take up to seven
weeks to get some lettuce and fruits into the kitchen
for Singapore Airlines. In 2019 the carrier expanded its
farm-to-plane initiative for one of the world’s longest flights. The 19-hour journey from Newark
to Singapore sources, leafy greens and vegetables from Aerofarms, an indoor
vertical farm located in a former warehouse near Newark
Airport in New Jersey. AeroFarms is a private
urban agricultural company. We grow without sun, without soil. Instead of sun we use
LED’s – light-emitting diode’s. Instead of soil, we use a cloth
growth media that’s made out of 100 percent recycled materials. A eroFarms claims it has over 300
times the productivity of a normal farm because of the
fast crop cycles, the fully-controlled environment and
the stacks of plants. We harvest the vegetables and the leaf
green at eight o’clock in the morning and those leaf greens on the
flight at eight o’clock the next day. But while U.S. airlines are making billions labor union
leaders say many of the airline caterers in the U.S. who prepare first class meals for
American, Delta and United are struggling to make ends meet. In November 2019 thousands of
airline catering workers demonstrated at about 15 U.S. airports calling for better wages
and affordable health care, according to Unite Here, a union
that represents 20,000 workers in the airline catering industry. Airline catering kitchens
are factories. There’s workers preparing
that food. There’s workers plating that food. There’s workers loading that
up into that cart. More than half of the workers at
two of the nation’s biggest airline catering companies, LSG Sky Chefs and
Gate Gourmet earn less than $15 an hour and struggle to pay
for their company’s expensive health care, according to Unite Here. And airlines aren’t just
facing labor issues. With more people flying cabin waste has
also become a top concern for airline execs. It is estimated that the airline
industry produced almost 6 million tons of cabin waste in 2017
costing the airlines almost a billion dollars, according to the IATA. Twenty percent of that waste was
made up of untouched food and drinks. But despite these issues,
the in-flight catering business is expected to grow at a rapid clip. T he global
airline catering business could surge to more than $9.5 billion by 2026, according to
a study by Fact.MR a market research company. And with
the number of travelers expected to double by 2037, premium and
economy cabins could see even more food options in the future.


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