On-Time Aircraft Catering Delivery: Mastering the Art and Science of Flight-Ready Food

Feb. 1, 2024
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.

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.