Airplane food. How do they do it? If you’ve ever wondered how an airline gets a meal from the kitchen and into that airplane trolley, this post has all your answers.
Preparing airplane food is no easy feat. It’s a tightrope operation involving meticulous logistics on a grand scale. There’s no room for error either. Every flight needs its meals on-time and delivered onto the plane before it departs. Nothing can be forgotten. Once the plane takes off, there’s no turning back.
Emirates Flight Catering in Dubai
My recent media trip to Dubai was sponsored by Emirates and as part of our itinerary, we visited the Emirates Flight Catering facility on a behind-the-scenes tour. Security is paramount here. We need to pass through two security checkpoints before presenting ourselves at the security desk. Here we hand in our forms declaring we are free from any infectious and communicable diseases, sign a log book and surrender our passports before walking through security X-ray machines.
After donning white coats and hair nets (plus beard nets for some!) we descend into the belly of the building. Here all deliveries are scanned by Dubai police – not Emirates staff, to prevent any conflict of interest – before being released into the de-boxing area. To prevent infestations from bugs or rodents, all deliveries are removed from pallets and de-boxed before transfer into the supply storage area.
Elimination of possible contamination is of utmost priority. In the kitchens they even have a de-glassing area: any products in glass jars or bottles are kept here and their contents must be transferred to plastic containers before use in the kitchen. This minimises the risk of glass contamination should a glass container be accidentally dropped in food preparation areas.
Returned airline service trolleys waiting for sorting
There are airline service trolleys as far as the eye can see in the post-flight sorting section. All food items inside the trolley must be discarded. The crockery and plastic trays are re-used after going through high pressure dish washers.
Stacking crockery for the dishwasher in the Warewash
Clean crockery and trays
Entering the kitchens
The Emirates Flight Catering Facility is enormous but then again, it needs to be. They process 150,000 meals every day through this facility. On a good day they’ll process 155,000 to 160,000. The facility runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There are 1600 to 1800 staff onsite at any time.
Gold Standard sample for visual accuracy
The kitchen area is where most of the action happens. Consistency is vital, we’re told, and each area has a Gold Standard reference to ensure every item looks as similar as possible.
Speed buttering with gloves
How do you butter thousands of bread rolls with maximum efficiency? This guy just uses gloved fingers to dip and spread butter during his shift. He moves like lightning. Everyone here works with their head down and at rapid pace.
Bread roll assembly
Threading olives onto toothpicks
We’re told that staff rotate jobs here to prevent RSI and boredom but I don’t envy the person who has to thread olives onto toothpicks as part of their shift!
Did somebody say cheese?
There’s a ripple of excitement when we spot the cheeseboards being prepared for Business and First Class passengers. Cheese? Yes, please.
Selecting grapes for the cheeseboard
Attention to detail is clearly a priority, as we watch grapes being carefully sorted and selected for addition to the cheeseboard.
First Class entrees
Business Class and First Class meals are a step up from the Economy Class foil trays most of us are used to. These meals are fancier in presentation (and ingredients) and are carefully plated up on Royal Doulton fine bone china.
Tuna tartare entrees for First Class
Baklava dipped in chocolate made inhouse
All of the Arabic pastries used on-board are made inhouse. Arabic foods are an integral part of Emirates catering, and they prefer the ability to quality-control inhouse, an option they admit is available in Dubai because of relatively cheap labour costs here.
The kitchen is filled with industrial-sized pots and grills. Everything is made here on a grand scale.
Chicken skewers and chicken sausages being portioned for Economy Class
Economy Class meals are portioned into aluminium trays. All meals for all classes are blast chilled to 2C-3C and then heated if required on-board the aircraft.
Visual menu guides for each flight
Each flight has different meals for each passenger class, with each to be plated exactly the same. In addition to photos in the hallway, we notice that every assembly line has a folder propped open with photos of the meal they are currently working on.
To ensure easier traceability, one employee is responsible for assembling all Business Class and First Class meals on a single flight
Traceability enables Emirates to identify the source of any problems or issues easily. Assembling the Business Class and First Class meals sounds like fun until we find out that one employee is made responsible for both classes of meals on a single flight. Pressure!
Dessert trays for Business Class
Loading up a trolley for a Business Class flight to Japan
Assembly line for Economy Class trays
The Economy Class meal trays involve a multi-staff assembly line. It looks more like a factory as trays as moved down the line at rapid speed, each person adding two items before the conveyor belt moves it forward to the next person.
Each person on the assembly line is in charge of placing specific items onto the tray
Cutlery polishing station
There are shrieks and giggles when we approach the cutlery polishing station. The women here look like they’re having a grand time chatting and gossiping as they polish each item of silverware.
Rolling cutlery packs into napkins for Business Class and First Class
The silverware is by Robert Welch, packed into rolled napkins for Business Class and First Class passengers.
Preparing the cutlery pack for Economy – the lady in front is in charge of toothpicks
The plastic-wrapped cutlery most of are used to in Economy is made up on a detailed assembly line with a partitioned conveyor belt moving through several staff members. The belt moves at such speed, each person barely has time to add one item before it moves through a machine that seals everything inside a plastic packet.
Flight Preparation Monitoring program tracks when each meal class has been completed
Multiple flights are being worked on at the same time. The Flight Preparation Monitoring program tracks when each meal class has been completed. An entire flight row must be completed with green ticks before it can be loaded for delivery to the aircraft.
The peak period is in the early hours of the morning as 40% of Emirates flights leave between 7am and 11am.
Catering is delivered to the aircraft about 1-2 hours before scheduled departure. Cooking for each meal commences 12-14 hours beforehand. Tray assembly begins 4-5 hours prior to flight departure.
Trolleys loaded with meals being moved into the lift for delivery to the airplane
We’re also surprised to learn that Economy has a meal load of 100%. That means no extra meals of any kind which would explain why you sometimes miss out on the chicken or beef. Business class is loaded with 120% and First Class is loaded at 150%.
Emirates Flight Catering facilities are also responsible for the food in the Business Class and First Class lounges at the airport.