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Image: Katie Sehl

APEX Insight: When it comes to airline food, so much remains a mystery to the average passenger. How is airline food made? Who decides the menu? And, most importantly, why does airline food taste so bland? APEX Media toured LSG Sky Chefs’ Frankfurt facility to identify and answer the most frequently asked questions about where airline food comes from and how it’s made.

Who makes airline food?
Airline catering companies like LSG Sky Chefs make airline food. But one of the biggest misconceptions is that they only make airline food, when in fact they are responsible for so much more. Cooking and food prep only make up a small portion of what goes on inside an airline catering facility; at LSG Sky Chefs Frankfurt, it’s roughly 25 percent.

But who makes airline food?
People make airline food. While some processes are automated, much of cooking and food preparation is still done by hand. LSG Sky Chefs Frankfurt employs 2,075 people, produces 85,500 meals per day and caters to multiple airlines. On top of that, menus are constantly refreshed to create variety, keep up with food trends, differentiate a brand and please passengers.

LSG Sky Chefs Frankfurt employs 2,075 people, produces 85,500 meals per day and caters to multiple airlines.

What happens to the food that isn’t eaten?
Ever left a packet of cookies unopened thinking the airline would serve it on another flight? Unfortunately, airlines don’t reuse anything on the meal tray: It’s against the law. The chance of spreading disease is taken so seriously that all incoming garbage is vacuumed into an underground chamber and incinerated. To avoid waste, pass the cookies on to another passenger, or save it in your carry-on for later.

What about the dishes? Are they reused?
Yes. All airline dishes – from the plastic cups in economy to the ceramic plates in first class – are washed and sanitized for their next flight. Cleaning airplane galley carts and dishes is the bulk of what happens at LSG Sky Chefs’ Frankfurt headquarters, home of the biggest dishwashing facility in Europe. It is estimated that every aircraft has three sets of catering equipment: one in-use on the airplane, one in the “dishwasher,” one ready to load and half a set to balance loss and breakage.

It is estimated that every aircraft has three sets of catering equipment: one in-use on the airplane, one in the “dishwasher,” one ready to load and half a set to balance loss and breakage.

How do they cook the food on the plane?
For safety reasons, airplanes do not have stovetops, so food is never cooked on an airplane. Food is cooked at a catering facility, not far from the airport, and reheated on board in a galley oven.

How fresh is the food?
Hot meals that arrive on your meal tray (not “ambient foods,” like the pre-packaged pretzels and cookies, or foods with a longer shelf life) are cooked no more than 10 hours before they are served. While this sounds like a long time, it shouldn’t be compared to the grilled chicken sitting on your counter waiting to be eaten. Cooked food is immediately chilled or frozen to maintain freshness and the temperature is regulated at a cool 2-5°C, until the moment before it is reheated and served on board.

How do they come up with the menus?
Airlines work with airline caterers, and sometimes celebrity chefs, to come up with menus. Dishes are decided based on trends and routes, and recipes and processes are tweaked for optimal taste at 35,000 feet. (It’s well-known that our ability to taste is dampened at cruising altitude due to the low air pressure, low air humidity and the sound of engine drone). For example, chefs are trying to find the right ingredients and processes to achieve the equivalent of German bread perfection – rösche Kruste – an expression that describes the ideal amount of crust and crispiness on a bread roll or croissant. 

There was no [blank] in my meal. What gives?
Last year’s avian flu outbreak, the worst in the United States, was a total disaster for the airline catering business. Eggs and poultry products were pulled out of operation. LSG had to ban the materials and find substitutes all over the world, in amounts that are not easy to obtain.

How are beverages chilled?
Instead of holding 100,000 beverages a day for six to eight hours in a cooling room, LSG uses a shock cooler that’s capable of bringing a can of soda from room temperature to 5°C in 12 minutes. How? Conveyor rollers carry clinking beverage trays through a mammoth freezer and blast them with an icy chill of -42°C.

How much better is food in first class?
Simply put, you get what you pay for. Of course, this varies with airlines, but first-class food service can be as elaborate as tableside service where a flight attendant will slice roast beef at your seat, or having an onboard barista brew pour over coffee in front of you.

How do airlines ensure my special dietary needs are met?
To comply with the many dietary needs of passengers, special meals are often prepared off-site and delivered to the catering facility. To understand why this is necessary, take a look at an airline’s numerous special meal offerings. For example, EVA Air offers more than 20 options catering to different types of vegetarians, religions, infant needs and health requirements – not ideal for mass production.

EVA Air offers more than 20 options catering to different types of vegetarians, religions, infant needs and health requirements.

Should I pre-order?
The best way to find out is to try it for yourself. See “Chicken Schnitzel Delivery to Your Airline Seat in an Hour.”

Why does airline food taste so bland?
It’s a common misperception that airlines care little about food, serving tasteless chicken or beef sludge. Airlines have much reason to care about what you eat and drink on board, and here’s why: It helps to set them apart from the competition. While cabin interiors are upgraded about every 10 years, food menus lend well to frequent change. We see airlines aligning themselves with different brands of coffee, beer and snacks as a selling point.

Airlines spend a lot of time considering their menus (low-sodium meals, wholesome ingredientshealthier beverages); airline catering companies are constantly improving recipes and calculating best practices for cooking, packaging and delivering delicious food on board while complying with a long list of security, food safety and equipment standards.

Our magazine feature, “The Logistics of Everything Loose,” scratches the surface of the complexities of the airline catering business. And although no one likes to eat mushy pasta, which hardly ever happens these days, as Louis C.K. once said, “You’re flying. You’re sitting in a chair in the sky,” and might it be added, eating a decent meal.

Did we miss a begging question about airline food? Tweet us @theAPEXassoc.

Caroline is managing editor at APEX Media.