How they provide meals on a jumbo

With up to 400 seats, a jumbo jet accommodates as many people as a medium-size hotel or hospital. On a typical intercontinental flight, passengers are given a meal of three courses (with a choice of main course), plus breakfast or afternoon tea.

Most major airlines prepare all the food in catering units at their home airports. British Airways’ huge catering centre at London’s Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, has a staff of several hundred – including 80 chefs – who produce about 160,000 meals each week. On a typical day, they supply 30 jumbo flights, which could be carrying almost 12,000 people.

Menus for the flights are planned three months ahead, but there are constant requests for special-diet meals booked by passengers for health, religious or cultural reasons. Special meals can be ordered for children, too – from babies’ bottles to sausages and mashed potatoes – right up to 24 hours before departure.

Working on information from the main reservations computer, the caterers start estimating requirements four days in advance. Flights may appear fully booked, but managers will `under cater’ according to computer predictions of how many seats will actually be occupied on the day. This is due to the perennial ‘no show’ problem of passengers who book but fail to turn up.

Early computer forecasts minimise waste of the fresh ingredients delivered daily. A typical weekly shopping list includes 30,000 chickens, 8000 lettuces and 175,000 tiny tomatoes.

In-flight catering

By departure day, the final meal requirements are in ASPIC, the centre’s automated system for controlling the production of in-flight catering. This displays on screens the meals needed for each class – First, Club World, and Economy, each with separate menus – plus special meals, shown with the names of the passengers concerned.

About four and a half hours before departure time, the centre begins to assemble the trays. The components including freshly prepared hors d’oeuvre and dessert, bread from the in-house bakery, cutlery and condiments – are delivered from their respective points in the 11/2 acre (4.7 hectare) building.

Methods of preparing hot dishes vary between airlines. Some precook the food for reheating in ovens or by microwave on board. On BA flights, the meals are part-cooked and rapidly chilled so they can later be finished in the plane’s fan-convector ovens (powered by the engines) and served freshly cooked.

When each tray has been assembled, 30 of them are loaded into the familiar aisle-wide trolleys. Along with the customs-documented drinks trolleys, serving equipment and other supplies, the meals are then wheeled to the marshalling area. The total ‘catering uplift’ for a single jumbo jet amounts to 35,000 items.

All must be checked and ready for loading two and a half hours before takeoff to give the fleet of trucks time to move the vast load to the aircraft.

It is now departure minus one hour. Any late items – a special meal for a last-minute passenger who happens to be diabetic, or perhaps an impulsively requested birthday cake – are supplied by a refrigerated van.

On board, the three sets of meals for the three different classes are stowed in their respective galleys – usually six in all. In the air, the meal is served according to the local time zone. The 15 cabin crew aim to pass out the trays as soon after the final cooking of the main ‘hot insert’ as possible.

With the trays collected and returned to their trolleys, all is ready to be unloaded at the destination by the catering vehicles which swarm to the aircraft as soon as it is parked. Here, the airline’s local contractor will sort and wash-up all the hardware.

The washing-up is a major operation. At BA’s Heathrow centre, the wash-up employs 160 people, against 130 in the kitchen, in spite of intense automation. One device picks up all the cutlery 90,000 pieces daily – by magnet.

Back at the aircraft’s destination, the cycle is restarting. In the brief time the aircraft is on the ground, another 35,000-item uplift is loaded. Where the flight is of two or more legs – London-Abu Dhabi Singapore Sydney, for example – the airline will try to provide a different menu in each class for each leg.

At 5 miles (8km) above the ground, the change of fare represents the only distinction between one part of the journey and the next.