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Between Flying starred-chefs and Buy onboard low cost model, How airlines adapt their catering models

Between Flying Starred-chefs and Buy onboard low cost model, How airlines adapt their catering models ? – By Ahmed Haouaria

28 Fév 2020

If the major airlines have reduced their culinary services on short flights due to the economic consideration and the aggressiveness of low-cost airlines, which have imposed the paid sandwich as a business model, they are increasingly focusing on inflight prestige. In the industry of airline catering, the major airlines are increasingly unpacking gourmet dishes and Michelin-starred chefs to provide meals in  First and Business Class passengers. The greatest chefs on the world gain altitude. However, imagining and creating a dish on the ground, even the most refined, is one thing, serving tasty meals in the air remains a big challenge are facing. In this industrial arena, meal trays served onboarded thousands of people manufacture, cool, store and prepare dishes for companies around the world, day and night.

The taste being altered at altitude, the chefs incorporate flavor enhancers into their recipes. Cooks also have to deal with a list of ingredients that are strongly discouraged or even banned, such as raw fish, fish with bones, foods that may offend certain spirits for various reasons, both religious and cultural.

Besides simplicity, the obsession of the chefs remains the delicate phase of reheating on board the plane. A few seconds too long and the dish is missed. So they themselves provide training for hostesses and stewards.


Airlines catering, what are we talking about?


The anglicism "catering" means "supplying meals for passengers" and can relate to the air, maritime or rail sectors. In this post, the focus will be mainly on airline catering. In addition to air catering, additional services have been developed such as cabin service retail-on-board, cabin cleaning, airport service as well as logistics and handling. Some players, due to the complexity of the airport supply chain, have chosen to work in one or more sectors for full mastery.

From the raw materials reception center to the cold rooms, located near the airport areas, the dishes are prepared in the chain in the dressing area and then placed on trolleys to be transported as quickly as possible to the aircraft parking area by dedicated catering trucks. 

Onboard the aircraft, the dishes are heated by the crew following a specific process and instructions. It is on the platforms on the ground that the dishes are cooked. Each plate is cooked, cooled and reheated in ovens, unlike a restaurant. For safety reasons, microwaves cannot be used onboard. Aircraft adapted electrical ovens are installed and used by Cabin Crew.Caterers must take into account the requirements specific to their activity when preparing meal trays: list of ingredients not recommended or prohibited by the companies, special meals ordered by passengers when booking online, meals for children, etc.

The menus are also different depending on whether passengers are traveling in Economy, Business or First Class and, to take into consideration passenger preferences, they are theoretically doubled but the airlines cannot satisfy all passengers in all cases. The quantities are transferred by the companies according to the deadlines established by mutual agreement between the airlines and catering companies. 

The quality of a meal has an impact on the next flight booking

The image of the plane meal tray changed when the airlines understood that they had to revise their menus at the risk of seeing passengers prefer the competition. Now airlines want to offer a quality dining experience to their passengers. The meal is not the first criterion for choosing a company but it is an element of differentiation. If the customer remembers the quality of a meal, this can have an impact on their next flight booking.

Faced with this data, companies must make choices in the face of changes in the competitive environment:

  • The growth of the air market-driven in particular by Latin America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East: according to IATA data, more than 4.5 billion passengers flew in 2019 and this figure is expected to double by 2037 to approach 16 billion in 2050.
  • The rise of low-cost airlines, both on the short-medium-haul (Ryanair, Easy Jet…) and on the long-haul (Norwegian, Eurowings, Level, Air Europa…), which offer flights at prices broken without meals included. Subsequently, the standard companies developed their low-cost subsidiaries, which was synonymous with disaffection for catering.
  •  The rise of companies with their catering unit (Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, Air Arabia, etc.).

World market major players in airline catering

Several types of companies are present in an increasingly competitive market.

  • Some Catering companies are directly affiliated with airlines (Servair, with Air France, Flight Catering of Emirates with Emirates or Alpha Flight Services with Air Arabia.
  • Companies that have developed expertise in the catering and related services sectors (licensed catering, rail, etc.) but have seen airline catering as an opportunity for growth…

The market is today dominated by global groups (LSG, Servair, Newrest, and Dnata) and tends to concentrate due to the increase in external growth operations.

For example, Newrest is now present in all business segments: airline catering, buy-on-board, duty-free on board, licensed catering, base management and support services such as military camps, oil platforms or mines, catering onboard trains, airport, and highway catering concessions.

Business Class an First Class: the priority competition battleground of airlines

It is notably through catering services that airlines can differentiate inflight services. Relatively profitable, the First class is a highly competitive market. As the clientele is demanding, passengers should be provided with the same services as in the largest restaurants. Indeed, the First class is today a showcase for airlines. The business class currently accounts for only 10% of long-haul passengers according to IATA  International Air Transport Association but generates around a third of airline revenues.

To fill these seats, companies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the comfort of seats and services in particular.

A large majority of companies offer menus prepared by Michelin-starred chefs, with cosmopolitan, local products and a menu that is regularly renewed based on management updates or customer feedback. First-class, to accompany the dishes, passengers can take advantage of prestigious wine lists.

Singapore Airlines prides itself on being the only company to offer the two most renowned Champagne in the world in First Class (Dom Perignon and Krug Grande cuvée). Air France sells more than a million bottles of wine and champagne made in France during its flights. For example, at British Airways, dinner is accompanied by dishes, cutlery and glasses exclusively designed by the best British designers, William Edwards, Studio William, and Dartington.

More broadly, it is all passengers who have benefited from this move upmarket for the last ten years. Henceforth, the meals served to tend to be healthier, of quality and are most often in line with the geographic areas served. Responding to new environmental challenges, a British packaging company announced at the World Travel Catering & Onboard Services Expo in early April 2019 in Germany the launch of its first range of 100% recyclable travel packaging.


The low cost business model; "à la carte" solutions: the final choice of passengers

Having worked for both legacy and low cost airlines and managed the launch of several catering products, I can testify how the transition from meal trays to paid sandwiches has changed considerably in recent years with the rise of low-cost companies and competition in prices. On short and medium distances, regular companies generally offer a light snack: drink and something to snack on. On flights longer than three hours, a meal tray is regularly offered (or breakfast for morning flights) but these types of flights tend to empty themselves of catering deemed too expensive. Only the long haul (flight duration over six hours) continues to invest in quality services. In fact, on regular airlines, a meal is generally served as well as a "snack". On some low-cost companies, nothing is offered to passengers during the flight but additional activities are developing such as buy-on-board (paid catering) or by-order made directly online when booking.

Popularized by low-cost companies, retail-on-board allows passengers to afford paid extras (snacks, drinks ...) in addition to duty-free products. The Norwegian company, specializing in low-cost long-distance, offers a real on-board catering service with a menu similar to that which one would find in a restaurant. Initially tested on American lines, this formula is now applied to the European network and allows companies to increase the revenue per passenger and play on its relatively low margins without any additional service. In addition, this solution meets the new demands of consumers with complex dietary requirements and diversified tastes.

On the other hand, pre-ordering meals online via pre-order is becoming more widespread for both low-cost and traditional companies. Singapore Airlines has been offering this type of service since the start of 2019 to its upper classes: pre-selection of meals is possible three weeks before the trip up to 24 hours before take-off.

Emirates as a success story case 

Emirates Flight Catering, the gastronomic section of Emirates, is on several fronts very impressive. A workplace of ​​174,000 m².

Over 11,000 employees at Emirates Flight Catering who produce 225,000 meals every day to over 100 airlines including Emirates Airline. Chefs from 58 nations with years of culinary expertise to ensure that the food served onboard the aircraft is of the highest quality, a fleet of 295 load-carrying trucks for delivery, a conveyor system of 2, 4 km long to transfer kitchen utensils after cleaning, a dedicated chef for each type of cuisine training a team of 58 different nationalities, a menu adapted to each destination, a menu that changes every three months… the list goes on.

These are some of the reasons Emirates Flight Catering is rightly considered as a world leader in the aviation catering industry, operating the largest airline catering facility in the world. Especially that the division operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year also provides catering services to more than 100 airlines around the world from its catering units at Dubai International Airport.

The initial installation of Emirates Flight Catering was designed on four floors for the production of up to 125,000 meals per day. Over the years and with increasing demand, the company has developed its processes to reach 180,000 meals a day. But as this volume was no longer sufficient to meet the needs, the decision was made by management to make a new wing identical to the first, and to dedicate it to the Premium services of the company, the first and the Business class. Therefore, all catering services for the economy class are carried out in the first building. During the low season, EFC produces between 180,000 and 185,000 meals per day. During the high season, the Catering arrives at 235,000 meals.




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