Airplane meals have come a long way from the bland or soggy offerings of the past. Today, airlines work hard to provide tasty, nutritious and appealing meals for their passengers. But who actually prepares those meals that we eat at 30,000 feet?
- Airplane meals are prepared by airline catering companies contracted by the airlines.
- Catering facilities are located near major airports worldwide.
- Meals are chilled after cooking, then loaded onto airplanes prior to each flight.
- Onboard flight attendants reheat and serve the meals during the flight.
Airline meals are not cooked inside the airplane itself. Instead, specialized airline catering companies are contracted by the airlines to prepare the meals well in advance of each flight.
The airline catering process
Airline catering is a complex, highly coordinated process that allows airlines to provide millions of meals each year to passengers inflight. It involves meticulous planning and specialized facilities.
Each airline partners with one or more catering companies in major airport hubs around the world. For example, United Airlines utilizes catering facilities in cities like Chicago, Houston, Denver, Honolulu, and Frankfurt. Other airlines use a similar model.
Meal planning starts months before the first meal is even cooked. Airlines work closely with their caterers to plan menus and design recipes. The catering staff includes dietitians and executive chefs who create varied, appealing and nutritious meals. The menu schedule is carefully planned, rotating through different meals for variety. Special meals like low-salt, diabetic-friendly, kosher, halal, fruit platters or kids meals are also available to accommodate passenger needs.
Once menus are set, it’s time for meal preparation. Airline catering kitchens are immense, sometimes over 100,000 square feet in size. They function like small factories, designed for efficient high-volume production.
On any given day, thousands of meals may be prepared in one kitchen. Culinary staff get to work on chopping, mixing, cooking and plating the different recipes. Industrial equipment like convection ovens can cook hundreds of meals at a time. Fresh ingredients are used to prepare hot entrees, side dishes, salads, desserts and snacks.
After cooking, meals are assembled on trays according to the menu specifications. Trays are loaded onto specialized carts for each airplane. Based on information from the airline about the route, aircraft type and number of passengers booked, the exact count of meals and carts is prepared for each flight. Cart loading is done with precision to ensure proper meal service onboard.
Chilling and loading
Once assembled, the carts holding the plated meals are transported through refrigerated conveyor belts. This quickly chills the food down to safe temperatures for storage. After chilling, carts are sealed, kept refrigerated and stored until just before the flight.
Right before an airplane arrives, frozen and refrigerated food carts are hauled onto the flight and loaded into galley cart elevators and lifts. Loading times can be as short as 45 minutes for narrow-body aircraft or up to 3-4 hours for large wide-body aircraft.
Airplane galley operations
Once loaded onboard, the galley flight attendants take over getting meals ready for service inflight.
Airplanes have special convection ovens in the galleys to re-heat chilled meals. Flight attendants coordinate the timing, getting meals into ovens about 30-45 minutes prior to service. Ovens heat food quickly to serving temperature. Some dishes may also go into steamers. Re-heating the pre-cooked food ensures a hot, fresh, appetizing meal is served to each passenger at their seat.
Flight attendants prepare beverages like coffee and tea using airplane water reservoirs. They may also pour juices, sodas or alcoholic drinks to serve during meal times. Some snacks and desserts may also be taken out of cold storage to plate up.
Once hot meals are ready, flight attendants begin meal services, moving their carts through the airplane cabins. They distribute trays, dishes, utensils and pour beverages for passengers. After serving a course, attendants collect used dishes and utensils before serving the next item. Timings are coordinated section by section to keep meals hot. Attendants also accommodate special meals and take care of passenger requests. They aim to provide friendly, efficient meal services even at 35,000 feet!
Airline catering facilities
Preparing millions of meals annually requires vast facilities and staffing near major airports. Let’s take a look at what goes on inside airline catering operations:
Kitchen and production
The kitchen is the heart of catering operations and takes up the majority of space. Industrial cooking equipment can cook hundreds of the same dish at one time. Multiple cooking lines may prepare different menu items simultaneously. Areas are set up for activities like produce chopping, soup preparation, salad tossing, dessert assembly and more. Culinary staff follow recipes precisely, with quality control measures at every step. Facilities run 24/7 to cook meals for early morning and late night flights too.
Meal assembly and tray setting
Beyond the kitchen, vast spaces are setup for meal tray assembly lines. Trays move along conveyors as staff load each cart with designated dishes. Placement is meticulously planned to avoid spills or mess. Trays may pass through microblast freezers to quick-chill items like soups, curries or sauces. Further down the line, staff add platings like appetizers, salads, desserts, rolls, drinks and cutlery. Trays are inserted into carts, which are wheeled to cold storage.
Carts full of plated meals sit in giant refrigerated rooms kept just above freezing temperature. This ensures food safety while awaiting transport to planes. Close monitoring prevents temperature changes that could cause unsafe bacteria growth. Some meals may be blast frozen and moved to separate large freezers.
Transport and cleaning
Other facility rooms house the transport and sanitation functions. Meal carts are loaded onto refrigerated trucks for hauling to aircraft. Empty carts are returned for aggressive cleaning using high heat and detergent. Cart washing rooms prevent any foodborne illness cross-contamination. Strict standards are followed for both transport and sanitation procedures.
Maintaining food safety is critical when handling thousands of meals. Airlines and caterers follow very stringent food safety protocols:
Supply chain control
Only approved, reputable food suppliers are contracted to provide ingredients like produce, meat, poultry and dairy. Specifications ensure high-quality items are supplied and tracked through the system.
Kitchens follow food manufacturing standards for strict hygiene controls and sanitation protocols. Examples include:
- Staff training on hand washing, surface sanitizing, food storage
- Zoned areas separating raw and cooked foods
- Frequent kitchen deep cleaning
- Swab testing for bacteria
- Required hair/beard nets, gloves and uniforms for staff
Cooking and chilling
Following proper protocols during cooking, rapid chilling and consistent cold storage prevents bacterial growth. Examples include:
- Cooking foods to required internal temperatures to destroy pathogens
- Blast chillers to quickly cool hot foods below 40°F
- Uninterrupted cold chain with recordings during storage and transit
- Monitoring freezer and refrigeration equipment
Extensive cleaning and sanitation of meal carts, equipment, utensils and facilities aim to prevent dangerous bacteria like salmonella. Strict standard operating procedures are followed.
Frequent microbial testing of surfaces and food samples helps identify any contamination or hygiene lapses so they can be corrected.
Food safety certifications
Many catering facilities get audited and certified by organizations like the International Flight Services Association (IFSA) or the British Retail Consortium (BRC) for food safety. Maintaining excellent food safety scores is a priority.
Not all airline meals are the same. Catering varies substantially by airline, flight destination and class of service:
Each airline has unique menus and meal service philosophies:
- Singapore Airlines: Offers “Book the Cook” service in premium cabins letting passengers pre-order gourmet dishes like lobster thermidor conceived by renowned chefs.
- Emirates: Provides regionally inspired meals like rice biryani on flights to India or middle eastern meals on Dubai flights.
- Delta: Serves meals co-branded with restaurant partners like Luke’s Lobster on some US flights.
- United: Rotates through different meal concepts like tapas, pan-Latin, Polaris international or Hawaiian menus.
Flight duration and region
Long-haul international flights generally have more lavish, multi-course meals. Shorter domestic or regional flights may offer lighter snack boxes. Flights catering to local tastes like Asia, Europe, Middle East or South America will adjust meal offerings.
First and business class passengers enjoy premium dining with more personalized service and higher-end meals. Main cabin economy meals are still tasty but tend to use more affordable ingredients in smaller portions. Budget airlines may charge for buy-on-board meals or only provide snacks.
Besides regular meal types, airlines also cater to millions of special meal requests each year for health, religious or other reasons. Examples include:
- Vegetarian/vegan/non-dairy/non-gluten – Prepared without animal products or allergens
- Kosher/halal – Adheres to Jewish or Islamic dietary laws
- Low sodium/calorie controlled – For health needs like high blood pressure
- Diabetic, low fat/cholesterol – Tailored to diet needs
- Children’s, toddler – Kid-friendly foods
- Fruit platter – Fresh fruit servings
- Asian vegetarian (Hindu meal)- Adheres to religious needs
These are specially prepared using designated cookware and ingredients. Airlines work diligently to cater to medical, religious, ethical or personal meal requirements.
Airline catering always looks for new innovations to improve meal quality and passenger experience:
Advanced cooking technology like sous vide helps lock in moisture and flavor when reheating meals inflight. Combination ovens allow more settings and flexibility.
Pureed food, customized textures and molded items let airlines accommodate passengers with medical conditions like dysphagia.
Packaging techniques like vacuum sealing, emulsion fills and active oxygen reduction maintain quality over longer storage durations.
Onboard food safety
Smart sensors monitor time, temperature and motion during meal cart transport and storage to prevent lapses.
Some airlines allow ordering meals in advance online for more choices inflight. This allows better planning and less waste.
Mobile meal ordering
Apps let passengers preorder meals from mobile devices before their flight for specialized, cafe-style dining inflight.
Airlines and caterers are working toward more eco-friendly meal production and service:
- Locally sourced ingredients – Sourcing sustainable, fresh ingredients near flight destinations reduces transport miles.
- Less plastics – Transitioning to eco-friendly bamboo cutlery, pulp containers, etc.
- Reduced packaging and waste – Eliminating non-essential packaging to cut waste. Donating excess untouched food.
- Sustainable meal choices – Adding more plant-based, responsibly-raised meat options that are lighter footprint.
- Efficient facilities – Upgrading to energy-efficient kitchen equipment, water reduction and composting.
The future of airline meals
Airline dining keeps evolving with consumer tastes and new dining concepts. Here are some predictions:
- Branded, celebrity chef meals – More co-branded meals planned by famous chefs and restaurants
- Pop-up meals – Rotating selections from trendy chefs for unique inflight dining
- Improved quality – Continued focus on fresh, nutritious, innovative offerings even in economy class
- Buffet service – New planes like the A380 allowing self-serve buffet bars
- Retail experience – Airplane cabins mimicking restaurants, cafes or grab-n-go markets
- Order ahead, delivery – Seamless app ordering from mobile devices and seat delivery
- Personalization – Customizing meals based on passenger preferences, history, purpose of travel
While airplane meals have certainly changed over the years, one thing’s for certain – airlines will continue innovating ways to make dining at 35,000 feet an enjoyable culinary adventure!
Airline meals go through a complex, behind-the-scenes process before landing on your dining tray table inflight. Meticulous coordination between airlines, catering companies and flight crews comes together to make mealtime possible even at cruising altitude. With passenger tastes constantly changing and innovation driving improved quality and variety, the future looks bright when it comes to dining among the clouds.