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AIRLINE MEALS: Catering Process of Airline Meals

Updated on September 6, 2014
Airlines serve millions of meals a year
Airlines serve millions of meals a year | Source

A typical airline will serve thousands of meals to passengers every day. These airline meals must be delivered daily to airline customers without fail. The catering of airline meals is a complex, time-sensitive process that requires proper coordination for it to be successful. This article looks at the organisation of the catering process for the production of airline meals.

Food served by airlines on early flights
Food served by airlines on early flights | Source

Airline Meals

In the early days of airline catering, meals were cooked on board the plane and served to the passengers as if they were in a restaurant. This was possible because very few people used air travel in those early days. As air travelled increased, it became impossible to cook food in the planes and the airlines turned to pre-made meals in order to serve their growing number of passengers.

The first airline meal was served by the Handey Page Company on a flight from London to Paris in 1919. It consisted of a lunch box of sandwiches which cost three shillings. In 1936 United Airlines became the first airline to install on-board kitchens in its plane. This provided the passengers with hot meals at their convenience.

Breakfast - a sample of the airline meals served on planes
Breakfast - a sample of the airline meals served on planes | Source
First Class airline meals
First Class airline meals | Source

Catering for Airlines

The food served on airlines today is produced by a vast, complex and well coordinated supply chain. Millions of food trays have to be produced each day, delivered and served in time for the strict schedules of airlines. This is normally delivered by airline catering companies that are either owned by the airlines or are separate catering units established for the sole purpose of delivering food to the airlines.

A typical airline caterer delivers over 45,000 meal trays a day. This includes fruit and vegetable salads, starters, hot meals, snack and beverages. The caterer also delivers cutlery, linen and other amenities on a daily basis. For these items to be supplied to the airlines, the caterer has to organize the operations in such a way that everything is delivered on time given the tight arrivals and departures schedules of the airlines.

A feta cheese salad served in airlines
A feta cheese salad served in airlines | Source

What is your opinion of food served on airlines

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Organisation of Airline Caterers

Over 1 billion passengers are served by airline catering companies every year. An airline operating a Boieng 747 will load over 35,000 items weighing 5 metric tonnes and occupying 50 cubic metres of space. The items loaded into the plane will range from meal trays, duty-free products, toiletries, first-aid boxes, headsets, linen to headsets.

The food served on an airline is prepared in a process similar to a manufacturing process where it is cooked in large ovens and assembled in a manufacturing cell fashion. The logistics of delivering these food to the airlines is well coordinated between the caterer and the airline so as to meet the strict time schedules of passenger flights. Any delay in adhering to flight schedules is costly to the airline as the airport authorities usually slap heavy fines to flights that do not stick to the schedule.

A typical airline catering facility will consist of :

  • Hot Kitchen - In this section, the caterer cooks meals that are eaten hot. There are various food types that are prepared here from meat and sauces to vegetables.
  • Cold Kitchen- Salads and bakery items are prepared in this section
  • Wash-up area - All the airline and kitchen equipment is washed in the wash-up area
  • Equipment stores – Most airlines will store some of their equipment within the catering unit so as to make logistics simple. The returning equipment is washed and reused for assembling meals
  • Bonded warehouse – Here all the Duty free goods that go into the airline tray are stored in order to comply with laws that do not transit goods to be off-loaded into the local economy.
  • Assembly – All the components that go into a meal tray are assembled at one point and loaded into airline trolleys
  • Dispatch- Transportation is done using specialised high-loader trucks that allow for trolleys to be loaded and off-loaded from the planes.

A hot kitchen like that used to prepare airline meals
A hot kitchen like that used to prepare airline meals | Source

Airline Meals Component

Typical airline meals are composed of various elements depending on the airline class of the passengers. Premier and business classes have more components than economy class meals. In some airlines, for example the no-frills airlines, the meal components have been reduced to the bare minimum because these are low cost airlines.

Airline Meals Hygiene requirements

Airline meals have to meet strict hygiene requirements due to the fact that they are been consumed thousands of feet above ground. If a medical emergency were to occur, the patient has very limited medical options.


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    • profile image

      xyz 2 years ago


      Aside from the risk of cross contamination on domestic flights- due to bacterial, chemical or physical elements

      Int'l meals must be thrown away as it is mandated by the USDA and enforced at airports - The US is very vigilant about

      foreign viruses in food and fruits etc- the Int'l trash (food included) is disinfected ( cooked in very high temp chambers) and then grown away

      it is regulated

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      airline give simple snacks and dessert for passengers, not enough to fill up the tummy

    • profile image

      stornblot 3 years ago

      that's a shame if they're just thrown away... it feel like these regulations are a bit too strict. with the millions of people that go hungry every day, it's a shame that good food like this has to go to waste. can't they donate these to food banks? what's your take on these regulations?

    • gitachud profile image

      David Gitachu 3 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Hi sfornblot,

      All meals returns from the plane whether partially consumed or not are disposed of as waste food according to established protocols. It would be very risky to reuse the meals as they do not meet the strict hygiene and food safety requirements of airlines.

    • profile image

      stornblot 3 years ago

      hi David, i'd like to know more about disposal of airline meals.

      I understand they load the planes with new batches of meals, but what happens to the old sets, or the packaged meals that haven't been served yet? do they just get thrown away?

    • gitachud profile image

      David Gitachu 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      In fact, they are looking at more ways to reduce the meals they serve. Some "low-cost" airlines are offering nothing these days. Thanks for your comment WriterJanis.

    • WriterJanis profile image

      Janis 4 years ago from California

      With all the money it costs to fly, I think it's a shame that airlines don't serve more meals.