How to Provide Quality Airline Catering

Dec. 19, 2023
Catering service providers describe how they deliver meals to the aircraft and in time for take-off.

Food sometimes is more than just nourishment. It’s comfort. It’s refreshment. It’s a new flavor or the taste of home. It’s entertainment or at minimum, a distraction, and onboard a commercial flight, it’s important to the passenger experience. Therefore, the work of catering and commissary services getting food to an aircraft safely and on time is important.

Catering service providers know what it takes to get the job done efficiently and effectively.

The role of the aircraft caterer is to board all required products and supplies to the proper positions and locations inside each galley, and to do so on time and in a safe manner, therefore setting up the outbound flight crew for success. When this is accomplished, through collaboration between the caterer and airline, it’s a seamless process,” says Anthony Colliss, president and managing director at Gate Gourmet Canada, a brand of gategroup.

The specific services provided by a caterer may vary.

“Depending on the airline, the service might encompass complimentary or purchasable food items, beverages, and additional conveniences like point-of-sale devices,” says Colliss.

Services also could include providing headphones for in-flight entertainment, blankets, pillows and reading materials like newspapers and magazines.

gategroup divides Aviation Services and Food Solutions into separate business segments. Aviation Services includes airline catering, retail on board, airport lounges and equipment. Food Solutions includes ready-to-serve meals and ingredients, catering solutions, platform-driven food experiences and packaging solutions.

“gategroup’s culinary philosophy is to amplify the heart and soul of our airline customers through the power of culinary experiences, by combining the art and science of culinary,” says Colliss. “We share a higher purpose with our customers and people. We exist to elevate human emotion; to move people while they are moving; to stimulate, delight and satisfy their emotions. As part of this purpose, our continuous goal is to provide high-quality food and equipment according to the airline’s specifications in the right quantity, at the right time, in a safe manner.”

The number of meals loaded on an international flight usually is equal to the number of passengers. Longer flights may have more than one meal per person. Colliss says catering employees who deliver and load the meals may work in teams for larger aircraft and be assigned one flight every hour, while smaller, less complicated flights may have drivers delivering and loading as many as 10 flights per shift.

“There are different models for providing food,” Colliss adds. “The caterer may produce it on or close to the airport, or it may be an ambient or frozen product delivered to the caterer for loading and delivery.”

Depending on the flight time of a departing aircraft and the type of aircraft, Colliss says loading in the kitchen can take 15 to 30 minutes, while leaving the kitchen, going through security and arriving at the aircraft can take 15 to 20 minutes.

According to Colliss, the most common challenges are delays getting through security checkpoints and the ability to gain access to the aircraft.

“For example,” he says, “if the cargo team is offloading or loading cargo, their equipment can be blocking our path to the aircraft cabin/catering doors, causing us to wait.”

According to Colliss, loading vehicles and providing service at the aircraft typically takes two to three people. Loading the truck can consist of two people and one person at the dock or working in the kitchen. The servicing at the aircraft of a specific galley usually consists of the same two people.

The time to unload a catering truck can vary from 10 minutes to 30 minutes, he says, depending on the size of the galley and aircraft. When a truck is unloaded depends on the ground time of the aircraft.

“If it is a quick turnaround,” Colliss says, “the caters try to arrive at the aircraft as it arrives at the gate and start their work as soon and as safely as possible.”

Catering must be completed in a fashion that leaves enough time for passengers to board and crews to complete all their safety and security checks prior to departure, he says.

Before meals and other items are loaded onto the aircraft, Colliss says used items on the plane are generally removed and placed into the truck, leaving the catering vehicle driver the necessary room to load the aircraft with the new items.

“This also helps avoid errors,” he adds.“Additionally, items that are not suited for trolleys or carriers are securely placed in bags or containers, ensuring they are protected from weather and any accidental impacts.

“At gategroup, the staging sequence is carefully designed to optimize efficiency and accuracy, which is why we pride ourselves on our operational excellence,” Colliss continues. “We have robust standards and protocols in place to consistently achieve on-time performance and the highest levels of service quality.”

In the event of a flight delay or interruption to the operation (IROP), if the food has not yet left the kitchen, it would be held in a refrigerated area. A strict timeline determines when the food is usable and the catering team must assess if food can be served or if it needs to be remade.

Before being allowed to handle food and prior to being able to transfer catering and supplies to and from an aircraft, Colliss says all staff members must complete a myriad of required training courses. Food safety, aircraft familiarization and airside operations are included in these courses.

“Recurrent training on these topics and additional topics takes place on a regular basis for each of our employees as we take training very seriously,” he says.

Commissary Service

Unifi Aviation provides commissary service for Delta Air Lines at its busiest hub – Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL). Commissary employees load and prepare the service carts and transport and load them on the flight.

All the meals – including crew meals – arrive pre-packaged from a catering facility.

“We double-check to ensure that the packaging is intact before loading it into the cart. Two to three agents do quality control every shift. Most of our food has a long shelf life, such as snacks, beverages, etc.; perishable meals are packaged in dry ice,” says Jerrod Green, the director of operations who oversees Unifi’s Commissary Operations at ATL.

Depending on the aircraft size, each flight has an average of four to eight carts. 

“We have documentation for every flight on the service required, and the staff will build that out using the right cart - the right size. Everything the flight attendant needs for service, from meals down to coffee stirrers, is built out by our team,” says Green.

“Once the carts are ready, they are loaded onto our trucks. The drivers have PDA devices that tell them which carts go to which flight based on departure time. The driver will go to the flight – exchange the old product with the new product, and once they are done with all the flights, those old carts are brought back to our warehouse to be emptied and restocked for the next set of flights.”

In total, Unifi Aviation has just over 475 employees total on its commissary service for Delta Air Lines in Atlanta. The trucks they use are 14-foot and 16-foot and have one and two drivers, respectively. Ramp agents guide Unifi drivers to the aircraft and sometimes help load the carts onto the aircraft, depending on how much time the drivers have. 

“The smaller flights are what we call walk-ups, where the drivers must walk the carts in, and the more extensive flights, we rise up,” Green said, adding the smaller flights take longer to load -- about 18 minutes versus 12.

On average, every flight has four to six crew meals, about 40 8-ounce waters and a couple 1.5L water bottles, one to two dozen cans of soda and juices, and about 200 individually packaged snacks. Daily, about three flights require crew meals and first-class passenger meals.

Commissary training takes approximately six weeks. Employees are trained on where carts go and how they fit dock training for loading and unloading, and driver’s training.

“We emphasize continuous training for our drivers, and our partnership with Delta is crucial to on-time departures. For example, if there are challenging gates for our drivers to get in and out of, we work on the right solutions. But everything rests on safety, and that is the number one priority,” Green says.

Time and Other Challenges

The work of catering and commissary service is not without its challenges. Mike Hough, GAT chief executive officer of GAT, outlined some of those challenges.

For the most part, weather isn’t one of them. However, one exception would be parking the truck.

Time is always a factor in airline servicing, but Hough says after many years of practice, airlines have built models to ensure enough time for all of the choreography that goes on around the aircraft.

 Each aircraft type, size, and planned routes have different times have all undergone independent time studies to ensure the servicing can be completed,” he says.

Food safety is an important consideration. Along the food’s entire journey, Hough says the process is tightly controlled.

“Temperatures, food quality, food handling and facility and transport cleanliness are non-negotiable and tested continuously. At the build facility, our dispatchers are monitoring the flight information closely and adjust kitchen departure times for delayed flights. If a flight gets delayed after the truck has been dispatched, the team monitors the length of delay in the event that we are in danger of passing a safety window. If that happens, a new truck is prepared and dispatched and the original truck is called to return to the facility,” he says.

Another challenge is security.

“There are very strict processes mandated and tested by federal agencies like the TSA to ensure nothing can be introduced through the catering system,” Hough says.

Lastly, there is little room for error because space on the aircraft is limited. The good news, according to Hough is there is a clear, trained choreography on how to load and unload the aircraft as well as a contingency plan if equipment is blocked out by something else.