Food On The Fly: In-Flight Catering

Any air traveler to ever suffer through a stale cold-meat sandwich on a commercial flight likely appreciates the idea of something tastier and fresher – the sort of specialized food service available on-the-fly, if you will, from a myriad of catering services.

Let there be no doubt. If satisfying discriminating tastes sounds like a tough call in a sit-down restaurant, imagine the challenges of satisfying the varied tastes of travelers in corporate aircraft. As one wag explained it, “It’s somewhat similar to the line about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire – you know, she has to do everything he does, but backward and in high heels.

“Well, we often are called on to satisfy the tastes and demands of sophisticated people expecting at least restaurant quality – but miles in the air and going 600 miles an hour. It’s a challenge.”

That challenge is compounded by tastes that may vary from the haute cuisine to home cooking. In recent years, meeting the challenge has moved from the Earth-bound kitchens of catering services to the Mach 0.8-velocity airborne galleys of customer jets traveling well into the flight levels.

“If you think a short-order cook working in a 12-stool diner faces space challenges, imagine trying to put together a gourmet-level dining experience in a jet galley even smaller than that,” our catering veteran observed. “Actual in-flight food preparation is the new frontier of in-flight food and brings truth to the old misnomer of ‘in-flight’ catering so long used.”

Increasingly, the burden for these culinary feats falls on the shoulders of corporate flight attendants flying on larger jets carrying more-demanding passengers. Alternatively, the chef may be an actual restaurant-kitchen veteran who cross-qualified as cabin crew.

For these jobs, advanced preparation remains the core of the cooking, with aerial food preparers performing much of their work before the flight begins. Still, finishing the cooking in-flight has its limitations – many of them due to the available equipment in the galley. As a result, most consumables served in-flight remain the preparatory purview of the traditional in-flight catering companies. Though they may be called on to supply the fresh ingredients for preparation by a high-flying chef, it’s still from their own kitchens with their own staff that most meals emerge.

Matching needs to capabilities
It’s up to the people who book the food service order to impart to the caterer information ranging from the passengers desires to any special needs or dietary demands. That Thai chicken salad with peanuts may be verboten for a client with a peanut allergy. In fact, some so-afflicted suffer may have such a high degree of sensitivity that there is a risk in even having peanuts used on meals for others.

Vegan or vegetarian needs require advance notice, as do the dietary concerns of any passenger who is diabetic or required to control their food intake because of a medical condition.

Similarly, the limitations of the galley and length of a trip should also play into the preparation and fulfillment processes. For example, if a jet lacks a way to store foods that require chilling, an order of chicken, egg or tuna salad – whether in sandwiches or as a part of a leafy salad – can provide an opening to food poisoning if the food is going to sit for hours before consumption.

And the basis of a decision on how far into the flight these foods will get served fails to take into account the time of transport to the airport and the time the food sits without refrigeration between delivery to the aircraft and its actual consumption.

Similarly, foods delivered for “finishing” in the aircraft may need to be heated to an internal temperature beyond the capabilities of the galley. And the ability to achieve such internal temperatures may not be completely compatible with the dish. A piece of meat that’s been partially cooked my turn tough and unpalatable if merely microwaved to reach the appropriate internal temperature. And without a slow-cooking oven or warming drawer, the challenge may be untenable and require a different decision.

Food prepped to the point of needing only warming and presenting tends to make life a lot easier for the cabin crews on whose shoulders fall the tasks of serving up catered fare.

“Sometimes our passengers’ expectations rise to the point of a linens-and-china restaurant,” noted a flight attendant serving on a large-cabin charter jet. “Other times, the plastic serving trays and utensils are fine.”

The one element often highest on the radar screen after fulfilling the menu needs is the costs. That’s where in-flight catering – whether delivered ready-to-eat or for on-board presentation – often exceeds expectations.

It all adds up…
That can of soft drink that costs 75 cents in the vending machine and 45 cents when purchased as part of a six-pack at a grocer may go for a buck a can or more, when provided by a catering company. From egg salad sandwiches or cold cuts to fillet mignon or fresh lobster, expecting fast-food pricing fails to account for the myriad elements that go into getting it to and on-board the company airplane.

For example, the catering company will have to stock the item or pick it up especially. In-stock food and drink such as name-brand soft drinks will generally see the smallest cost boost, whereas an order for a boutique beverage that requires the caterer to locate, obtain and deliver to order can be re-sold for much more.

Apply the same factors to the foods and it’s not a far stretch to realizing that caterers often function as high-dollar restaurants for which the serving area is a ramp where the jet awaits.

The costs of ingredients, the costs of operating the kitchen, the labor of the chefs and food preparers, packaging, delivery vehicles and the fuel and personnel needed to fulfill orders all go into the pricing. That’s why those single-service Waldorf salads may fetch more than at the Waldorf Astoria, itself.

As the menu items become more exotic or costly, so goes the final price charged to the operator. For example, the need for ahi tuna for a dish often means finding a seafood specialist who carries the type; common red tuna will be easier and less costly.

And so it is where organic foods are concerned. Organics already typically command premium prices at the grocer. Including organic lettuces or veggies, meats or eggs, will proportionally drive up the final catering bill. Thinking specifically of how the order is packaged and delivered, finding and using containers compatible with the changing atmosphere and limited storage space of an aircraft galley also contributes to the costs.

When an FBO or flight-service operation is responsible for working as an intermediary between the aircraft crew and the caterer, there can be another level of expense for the time of staff who shepherded the order.

Finally, whether the dishes are on- or off-menu items can contribute to higher costs, catering veterans say. The difference: on-menu items are dishes for which the caterer stocks the ingredients and the staff has preparation down to a rhythm.

“When it’s an off-menu request, it’s an off-premises trip to the store to find those ingredients,” said one catering industry veteran. “With luck, you’ll find the items on one stop; for really exotic requests, it may take several stops – even if you find what you need from each stop. It all adds up.”

Galley Management
Managing the operation of storing and serving up the catered meal – or finishing the preparations for one delivered in still-to-cook form – usually falls on the shoulders of the cabin crew. Increasingly, these professionals are adding culinary arts to their skills mix, both to meet the increased demands of their jobs and to improve their job prospects.

“The first time a prospective employer asked me about my cooking skills, it stopped me for a second,” explained a cabin-service veteran who moved from the airlines to the corporate aviation world. “After the question clicked, I asked about the galley equipment – that turned out to be a good answer. I’m a pretty good cook at home; in a properly equipped galley, I can do as well.”

This same veteran noted one other thing worth considering: most jet’s galleys weren’t originally designed for the tasks of food preparation, only the simpler tasks of storing and serving food and drink, and disposing of the remnants.

Just as catering demands change, so change the demands on the galleys – to the point that an aircraft can be ordered with more than cooling, reheating and storing space; similarly, galley makeovers are often a part of aircraft refurbishment.

“When our (large-cabin) jet went in for a cabin upgrade, it also got a galley makeover that makes it more suitable for both extremes,” our cabin veteran noted. That means serving previously prepared food, and preparing uncooked ingredients for serving.

“We’re not going out looking for more to do, but when the call comes in, it’s nice to be able to fulfill a request. Now my boss is talking about sending me to school for in-flight cooking. Who knows,” she added, “this could open up a whole new career in the restaurant business – if I lose my mind.”

A Growth Industry
It wasn’t too many years ago when the only catering-service presence you’d encounter at a convention of the National Business Aviation Association came through one of the exhibitors using a familiar catering service to feed clients at the static display or a function on the exhibit floor. Today, catering services are among the faster-growing exhibitors scattered among the vast collection of companies showing at the convention.

Nationally, according to a variety of sources, companies that specialize in, or handle, in-flight needs as an element of its business number nearly 200; and that’s just in North America. Global numbers come closer to 300.

When you consider the growth in the business aircraft fleet over the past decade, such growth in the business of catering to corporate cabins only makes sense. This proliferation of caterers makes for more options and, often, flexibility for the crew.

For example, with more companies available, many a flight can get fresh food service at each stop instead of a flight receiving all the food needed at the beginning of a multiple-leg trip. “Given the space in our galleys, planning ahead to pick up the food for the next leg gives us more space to use, makes the food fresher and avoids that feeling that the whole trip seemed like the same food – because it all came from that one caterer back at our home field,” noted our large-cabin flight attendant.

The proliferation of caterers also means the field has new players of unknown capabilities, or players who see an opportunity to cash in on the boom in business aviation. The advice of the pros: make no orders with unknown entities unless there’s a recommendation from a trusted source with first-hand experience. Otherwise, the best surprise is no surprise - be assured by sticking with known vendors.

Pilots need nutrition
Of course, satisfying those Very Important Passengers in the cabin is always job one. But those folks up on the flight deck need to eat, too, and a crowded cockpit with a lot of sensitive systems around may not be the best environment for serving up the same fare feeding those in the back cabin.

While the contents may have improved and the quality increased through today’s dedicated in-flight caterers, corporate pilots say that the old-fashioned boxed lunch is still their best bet – if not their favorite.

“My favorite is what’s being served in back,” observed a local corporate pilot who regularly flies long international legs. “If we have a second crew on board, it’s not hard for us to enjoy sharing the good food. But for most legs, we’re not really in a position to enjoy pasta or soups – no, better make it a sandwich… a good sandwich, but a sandwich.”

That can mean anything from top-shelf deli meats to a warmed up chicken sandwich, or a couple of hot dogs warmed up in the galley.

The box lunch may also mean something more exotic – Thai, Chinese, or Japanese fare, Mexican or American – with other accoutrements like cheese and toast, a fruit cocktail or fresh fruit salad. Perhaps chips and crackers.

All the same - up front or in back, it’s clear that the foods being served at FL450 is a cut above what was offered only a few years ago which are more of a brunt of jokes than a satisfying culinary experience!

Factoring

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