If you usually sit in economy class when flying long-haul, when it boils down to plane food, you’re part of today’s ready meal revolution. That’s because the hot dish served up on your tray set is pretty much a scaled down version of the meals you might find in the frozen aisles at a supermarket.
Gate Gourmet, the world’s largest independent airline caterer, serving 14 major airlines, told us it outsources all economy meals to a frozen ready meal supplier.
We discovered that real cooking is confined to the premium cabins, on a tour of Gate Gourmet’s busy kitchens at London Heathrow airport.
At this facility, 53,000 meals are prepared, assembled and dispatched onto 135 flights every day. Over a year, that amounts to 17.8 million meals.
Gate Gourmet’s Production Line
After being outfitted in customary uniform: a white coat and hair net, our whistle stop tour at Gate Gourmet begins inside its menu development kitchen. Here, chefs help to devise and adapt a series of in-flight meals based on a few key ingredients (usually incorporating a vegetable that’s ‘in season’). The menu is often tweaked through a consultation with celebrity chefs, whom are hired by the airline. Once the airline is happy with the final recipe, chefs get ready to roll up their sleeves.
Our behind-the-scenes tour confirms that airlines seem to be putting their money where their mouth is in their catering for business and first class passengers. Even with economies of scale, there needs to be quality on the plate.
Unsurprisingly, business and first paying passengers are often the biggest in-flight food critics. Not just content with cuisine served off linen-lined trolleys or fine china, customers expect the food quality to be on a par with a five star restaurant, we’re told. Why? These passengers are much less price-sensitive, so airlines recognise that food, as well as leg-room are important service differentiators.
Gate Gourmet’s five kitchens (one is dedicated to halal food) run 16 hours a day.
We watch a chef work tirelessly flipping steaks. It can often be the only task they do all day. The steaks are cooked ‘medium rare’, we’re told, preserving their moisture (and quality) as they’re reheated on the aircraft. We also spot a chef grilling vegetables, before stacking them high on a trolley.
All cooked food ends up in ‘blast chillers’, which freeze the products within two hours. While non-perishable food is stored in a giant ‘pantry’.
The food production area is where food portioning, meal assembly and tray setting takes place. Over in one corner, a member of staff is scooping up dollops of a meat-based dish onto china plates. On display at the front of the table is a “golden sample” – a model of what each dish should ultimately look like. Only one in 10 meals are weighed up for size as staff have naturally developed a knack for portion precision.
Staff here assemble economy tray sets with Rachel’s organic yoghurts, chocolates and other nic nacks.
Surprisingly there are no conveyor belts in the production line; it’s a full manual process.
Next door, there’s a big clean up process with industrial dishwashers churning out clean cutlery and crockery from offloaded flights. All plastics, however go straight to the landfill (see Q&A for more info).
It’s a noisy environment – from the crashing sound of plates on the far side of the room, to drink cans and bottles being loaded onto trolleys. And there are a few workers seated, folding cutlery into napkins. It’s a relentless job.
At the end of the assembly line, trolleys are stored in chilled ‘dispatch rooms’. Gate Gourmet’s vans pull up outside to load up – and take the trolleys, which are stickered according to their designated flight number and laden with food to their aircraft. A central database stores all the flight information, so Gate Gourmet team are aware of any delays and can react quickly.
And the cycle starts all over again.
Meals on Wheels: Q&A with Gate Gourmet
Many of you had plenty of your own questions about in-flight catering – and we put them straight to Gate Gourmet’s spokesperson, Catherine Nugent.
Does our in-flight food contain GM, flavourings, colourings or preservatives?
Airline meals have come on leaps and bounds in recent years with the majority of airlines choosing to reduce additives where possible. One of our major customers has worked hard to eliminate trans-fats from their menus.
What happens to cutlery and other non-food items once they’re used by passengers?
All rotable crockery and cutlery is brought back to our unit to be washed. We have five brand new industrial dish washers that clean everything from glasses to trolleys and are in use for 16 hours a day. Disposable cutlery is thrown away in line with European legislation on category 1 waste.
Do caterers over-season everything because our taste buds aren’t as sensitive at 30,000ft, or is this a myth?
There is a lot of data that states taste buds change in the air but we do not believe this to be as big an issue as some research has made out. We do not over season our recipes and see the natural flavourings of the ingredients to be seasoning enough.
Where are most of the developments in airline food coming from?
Developments and innovations are always going to start with and focus on the premium cabins, simply because the budget is bigger and airlines are keen to try new things. We spend a lot of time looking at the latest trends in fine dining and finding ways to mirror that 30,000 feet in the air.
However, innovation and development does take place in the economy cabin. This year we have been able to bring part of this to the economy cabins by adding seasonal foods into our menus. We also do a lot of development work on the tray set up and the packaging of our economy products to save space, remove waste and create lighter alternatives which can have an impact on aircraft weight.
Could we be seeing organic/locally sourced food more in the cabins?
Sourcing high quality local produce is something we have been doing for about two years now. Our procurement team has done a tremendous job in going out to the market and finding small niche suppliers who can offer excellent quality produce at a great price due to buying in season. This is obviously easier with British carriers than some of our international airlines. Our procurement team and menu development team also examine trends on how food is actually plated up and what the crockery looks like.
Food waste is a big issue. How much effort is being made to cut down on packaging in-flight?
Food waste is top of everyone’s agenda and we have worked hard with suppliers to reduce packaging as much as possible. Unfortunately due to European legislation our category 1 waste still has to be disposed of in particular ways. All airlines see packaging reduction as a priority and you will already start to see changes in sandwich packaging to make sure that as much as possible can be recycled.
With airlines increasingly cutting costs, are we going to see smaller dishes in economy?
We do not see economy dishes getting smaller and we have not seen much of a reduction in budgets. All that we are doing is using our buying power to buy better, get more for our money and at a better quality. For example by reducing the cost of a bread roll or water cuplet, we can increase the quality of another product. It is just about moving the budget around the plate and using market prices to buy the right products at the right time.
What other food trends do you predict in the economy cabin?
Passengers are more interested than ever about where their food comes from and whether it is a nutritionally balanced meal. By continuously reviewing our supplier base, we are always looking at ways to deliver excellent quality at the right price for our airline customers.
Due to our buying power and the scale of our operation we have an organic dessert product flying economy ['Rachel's] at the moment, which is fantastic. This is a good marketing opportunity for the supplier and a great way to get direct feedback on a new product that is not even on sale in supermarkets yet – a win:win for everyone, especially the passenger.
What is the best or worst meal you’ve eaten on an airline? Would you be prepared to pay for an optional meal in long-haul economy cabins or should it be part of the ticket?