The flight catering industry is a very large, global activity. The total market size is estimated to be around 12 billion euros. More than 1 billion passengers are served each year. It is probably one of the most complex operational systems in the world. For instance, a large-scale flight catering production unit may employ over 800 staff to produce as many as 25,000 meals per day during peak periods. Large international airlines may have more than 1,000 takeoffs and landings every day. A single, long-haul Boeing 747 has over 40,000 items loaded on to it before it flies. All together these items weigh 6 metric tonnes and occupy a space of 60 cubic metres. These items range from meals to toilet bags, from duty-free goods to first aid boxes, from newspapers to headsets. Food items must be fresh and items for personal passenger use must be clean and serviceable.
These facts and others like them make flight catering unlike any other sector of the catering industry. While the way food is served on trays to airline passengers bears some resemblance to service styles in restaurants or cafeterias, the way food is prepared and cooked is increasingly resembling a food manufacturing plant. Certainly the hot kitchen in a typical production kitchen is often no more than 10% of the total floor area. The rest of the space is used for bonded stores, tray and trolley assembly, and flight wash-up. And almost certainly there are far more loaders and drivers employed than chefs. The way food and equipment is stored resembles a freight warehouse, and the way meals and equipment are transported and supplied has a close affinity to military-style logistics and distribution systems. When the very large numbers and variety of items which must be loaded for passenger service during a flight are considered, together with the need for them to be loaded at widespread locations, the logistics complexity is obvious. It is therefore not surprising that the President of KLM Catering once said that “Flight catering is 70 per cent logistics and 30 per cent cooking.”
Role of Food Onboard
How important are food and onboard service to the airlines? Some airlines use food as a marketing tool. A number of airlines advertise their product by making food the focal point. But food as a marketing tool has only a limited impact. Surveys over a number of years suggest that passengers appear most concerned about safety, ontime performance, scheduling/ticketing issues, the aircraft's physical surroundings such as seat and leg comfort, and gate check-in and boarding. This means that while food is important, it is unlikely to be the deciding factor in a passenger's airline choice. This is most clearly seen in the USA where deregulation has had a great effect upon competition and fare wars are common. This has led to most US airlines implementing a no-frills policy where no meals are served on board flights within the USA. This same trend is evident in Europe, with carriers such as Ryanair and EasyJet offering low cost, no frills flights between European destinations.
Consumer (and media) perceptions of meal quality in airlines is low. This may be due to a number of factors which affect passengers’ appetite and behaviour whilst flying. Sensory abilities such as smell, sight, and taste are affected by the relatively low humidity and air pressure experienced at altitude. This affects taste buds (which may function as much as 30 percent below par) and mucous membranes in the nose (which blunts the sense of smell). Airline food is often more highly seasoned for these reasons. Likewise, at such a high altitude not all wines retain their subtle aroma and bouquet and this has to be taken into account when wine lists are chosen by the airlines and...