Like it or hate it, all of us had plenty of meals onboard an aircraft. While the quality varies massively between airlines and cabin classes, handling and cooking are very similar. This article takes a look at how food is prepared on the aircraft.
Preparation on the ground
It probably comes as no surprise that most of the preparation of airline meals occurs before the flight, on the ground. Airlines will either arrange their own meals or, more commonly, agree with a manufacturer to supply them.
This, of course, varies between countries, with many different companies offering such services. One of the largest is LSG Sky Chefs. They explain how the Frankfurt location alone, which caters to several airlines, produces 85,500 meals each day. It also operates the largest dishwashing bureau in Europe – serving equipment is reused. Still, all food items that are not used are disposed of.
Airline food is intended to be re-heated. These on-ground facilities will prepare, cook, and package large quantities of meals. After cooking, depending on the type of food, it will either be refrigerated or frozen until re-heated onboard (usually within ten hours of preparation). A lot of food, including most meats, are delicately partly cooked. The re-heating process will then take over the final part of the cooking.
There have of course been some changes in 2020, but the principles still remain the same. Many airlines have, hopefully for a temporary period, shifted to more straightforward menus and fewer items.
Once prepared, usually at an on-airport kitchen or close by, the chilled food is loaded onto the aircraft. This sounds simple, but it is a tremendous logistical challenge. With thousands of meals across hundreds and hundreds of flights, all needed to be loaded suitably in a short period between landing and take-off. You can imagine the challenges!
Re-heating during the flight
Once onboard, the chilled food needs to be heated using the aircraft ovens. Each type of dish will have instructions for its re-heating and preparation. For most economy meals, re-heating simply takes places in the given tray. They will often be re-heated in a provided tray for more luxurious premium cabin meals and then assigned to other dishes for serving.
The ovens on an aircraft are specialized convection ovens with food heating using hot air. Microwaves are not used (although some early 747s did have them onboard). The meals are loaded on trays into the oven. Most meals take around 20 minutes to heat, and of course, they are heated and served in batches.
Several airlines market onboard chefs for their business or first-class cabins. While you may think that there is a kitchen on board where they can prepare fresh meals, this is unfortunately not the case. Chefs (usually specially trained flight attendants), will prepare meals using the same ovens and a wider choice of ingredients and options. Some airlines offer fresh eggs cooked onboard, but that is about as far as it goes!
Bland tasting food?
Many passengers complain about airline food tasting too plain and bland. This is only partly true. While it makes sense to avoid overly intense or spicy flavours out of the need to cater to all passengers, there is also influence from the cabin atmosphere. The pressurized cabin and the low humidity, perception of taste, and salt and sweetness can decrease significantly.
Maintaining moisture is a crucial concern with airline meals. In the low humidity cabin environment, it can quickly dry out. Food will be designed (and tested) with this in mind, and modern aircraft convection ovens help conserve moisture.
And what about leftover food?
And as a final thought, have you ever wondered what happens to unused airline food? According to IATA research, 1.14 million tonnes of food was wasted from in-flight catering in 2017.
The default option remains, sadly, sending leftovers to landfill. But many countries and airlines are engaging in programs to recycle or donate reusable food items. And there is also more work being done to predict usage better (or ask passengers beforehand) and optimize loading.