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 departur
e. 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.
Emirates Business Class Lounge,
Sydney International Airport
Emirates Business Class lounge at Sydney International Airport
We missed out on an upgrade to Business Class on our flight from Sydney to Dubai, but we were granted guest passes for the Business Class lounge
. It's a welcome oasis of peace and quiet compared to the usual pre-flight chaos and of course the free food and alcohol buffet are more than welcome distractions.
DIY bar area, chicken pies, massage chairs and almond-stuffed dates by Bateel
You could easily eat a full meal here and then skip onboard and go straight to sleep. Shower facilities here come with complimentary towels and toiletries but I head straight for the free massage chairs
Steak on sweet potato roesti with onion rings in the Emirates Business Class Lounge in Sydney
Emirates Business Class Lounge,
Business Class lounge during breakfast at Dubai Airport
After an intensive itinerary
in Dubai, we were surprised with an upgrade to Business Class for our return flight to Sydney. The lounge area is much larger than the one in Sydney but there are also a lot more people.
Moet champagne on ice
The buffet has a range of options that include smoked salmon, croissants, sausages, scrambled eggs, roti and curries. It also has direct access to the boarding gate, allowing you to relax comfortably until the flight is well and truly ready to board.
Emirates Business Class,
A380 Dubai to Sydney
Business Class seating on Emirates in the A380
There's a great thrill about walking toward the signs marked "Business Class" as the economy plebs (oh how soon we forget) trundle with resignation toward their cattle pens. Our Emirates flight back to Sydney was on the A380 airbus which has configured all of Economy onto the main deck and First Class and Business Class passengers on the upper deck.
I turn right into Business Class but still try and sneak a glimpse of the mystical First Class
section. According to the Emirates website, each of the 14 First Class suites have private fully stocked mini-bars, a table, mirror, wardrobe and a sliding door that enables increased privacy. There are also two onboard shower spas
! Mile high hairwash, anyone?
Arrival champagne and orange juice
But I'm still grinning with glee as I settle into my Business Class seat. It's easy to spot the newly upgraded passengers, taking selfies in their seat while the regulars go straight into sleep mode. Cabin crew move quickly through the cabin offering glasses of champagne or orange juice and take care to address each passenger by name.
Business Class has a staggered 1-2-1 seating configuration which means every passenger has unrestricted access to the aisle.
Welcome champagne; personal drinks bar; deluxe nuts with Bloody Mary; and Business Class Bvlgari amenities kit
I'm stoked to discover each Business Class seat has its own (non-alcholic) drinks bar which comes stocked with Voss still water, Perrier sparkling, cranberry juice and two kinds of soft drink. Most importantly, each seat comes with power sockets - two USB ports and a universal power point
to fit any appliance required in-flight. Entertainment options are comprehensive with a huge playlist of movies, TV shows and games on their ICE entertainment system. The screen is huge. You can also pay for satellite Internet, with prices starting at US$7.50 for 5Mb of data.
The Bvlgari amenities kit for females is a little bit fancy too, packed in a reusable Bvlgari make-up bag. Even the usual peanut pack is upgraded to a deluxe mix that includes macadamias and what look like the world's biggest cashews.
Business Class seats with extended footrest beneath the seat in front
But let's be honest. The biggest difference between Economy and Business Class is the luxury of space when it comes to seating, especially the seat pitch (the distance between one point on a seat to the exact same point on the seat in front).
Emirates Business Class seats have a seat pitch of 48 inches of 1.2 metres
. This is a 50% increase on Economy which has a seat pitch of 32-34 inches or 81-86cm.
Business Class seat pitch and flat bed configuration
And when you're faced with the reality of a 14-hour flight, are there two words more magical than flat bed
? Methinks not.
The Business Class seat extends to fully flat bed that cleverly lines up with the extended foot rest beneath the seat in front. That meant my 5'8" frame could easily lie down flat. Bed time couldn't come fast enough!
Business Class lunch menu choices from Dubai to Sydney
The range of options for lunch is staggering with four different mains to choose from.
Traditional local Arabic mezze for entree
I chose the local Arabic mezze
for entree and was super impressed with the punchy flavours of the babaghanoush, the hommous, the tabouleh and dolmades vine leaf. It came with rounds of flat bread and having only just seen the logistics behind the Emirates Flight Catering facility, I thought this dish looked remarkably fresh.
My prawn biryani
main looked simple on the plate, but the sauced up prawns were addictive with a delicious level of heat. The basmati rice was wonderfully aromatic and tasty with spices. The individual grains were distinctly fluffy and separate too.
Cabin crew serving Business Class meals
Business Class meals are served separately by course. This means each course is at optimal eating temperature but it also means that a three course meal will take about an hour to receive and consume. Given the amount of eating we'd done in the previous week, I skipped dessert (quelle horreur) but I was keen to get to know my flat bed. And you know what? It was brilliant. I fell into a deep sleep for a couple of hours.
Emirates A380 Business Class onboard lounge at the rear of the upper deck
But let's say you wake up hungry. Or you're sick of watching movies and need to stretch your legs?
Head on down to the onboard lounge! Business Class has an onboard lounge at the rear of the upper deck. The First Class onboard lounge is at the very front.
Cabin crew take turns to man the horseshoe bar
The onboard lounge
includes a free-flowing bar, lounge seating and hors d'oeuvres. It's a bizarre feeling to wander up to the horseshoe bar and request a drink from the bartender, manned in turn by cabin crew from Business Class.
Lounges with seat belts for use during turbulence
It's even more surreal to sit on the curved leather lounges, nursing a drink and chatting with fellow passengers. During periods of turbulence, passengers need to return to their seats or sit on the lounge and use the seat belts.
Mini bagels, canapes, fruit skewers and desserts line the bar and countertop. At one point there are so many people back here, the bar feels more like a party. A polaroid camera is even pulled out by a steward at one point, with passengers encouraged to pose behind the bar.
Flying has never been so much fun, and as I bite into a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, I pause and think, I know exactly where you came from!
Grab Your Fork visited Dubai as a guest of Dubai Tourism. Flights and the tour of its catering facility was provided by Emirates.
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