DUBAI: Many people do not stop and think about the effort it takes for an airline to prepare multiple meals for long-haul flights; it is complex operation and just one of the many aspects that airlines need to concentrate on to be successful.
The largest airline catering facility in the world is the Emirates Flight Catering in Dubai. Each day, the 50,000 sq m facility produces 110,000 meal trays. It operates 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, and employs 6,600 people.
After an aircraft lands in Dubai, used carts filled with leftover food and dirty dishes are loaded onto trucks and brought to the catering facility, where they are placed next to a line of workers who put the items onto a conveyor belt. Employees are then tasked to separate dirty dishes from leftover food, trash and recyclables.
The dishes are further separated into silverware, glasses, plates and bowls and placed onto another conveyor belt that goes into a large dishwashing machine. Each day, over two million pieces of dishware are washed in the facility. Once dishes are clean, they are loaded into plastic bins, scanned into a computer system and a conveyor belt takes them to a storage area, where they wait to be recalled for their next use.
When employees are ready for a particular set of dishes or silverware, they enter their request into a computer and the system will deliver the selected bin.
On the other side of the facility, people work to cook, bake, cut and prepare food at four-star restaurant standards. That’s not an easy task to do on a small scale but it’s even more challenging on a large scale. When some customers are paying close to $20,000.00 for their first class ticket, expectations are high.
To make things even more challenging, a passenger’s ability to taste is not the same at 30,000 feet versus on the ground. People lose about 30% of their sense of taste when they are in the sky and chefs need to take great care in making food flavours a bit stronger and test them in the air and on the ground. Food is not the only item that is affected by altitude; so is wine. Every new wine is sent on a taste test flight to make sure it passes muster before being served.
Since Emirates flies all over the world and passengers have varying tastes, the airline keeps its menu fresh and caters to the appropriate international palates. It employs 450 chefs, who prepare 1524 menus each year.
In the kitchen portion of the facility, there are large tables, where employees make duplicates of the same meal over and over again. To make sure the quality does not suffer due to repetition, one meal, known as the ‘Gold Standard’, is created by a lead chef and this is copied for the other meals.
In a facility that produces over 45 million meals per year, obviously many ingredients are required. Each year, Emirates Flight Catering uses about three million eggs, 8760 tons of ice, 265 tons of beef tenderloin, 215 tons of shrimp, 26 tons of lobster and 200,000 liters of whipping cream.
Once a set of meals is completed, they are dated, packaged and either sent directly to be loaded onto carts or stored in one of the facility’s 46 cold and freezer rooms.
When a flight is getting close to departure, the carts are prepared. First- and business-class carts are hand loaded by a single individual, while economy carts are loaded in an assembly line.
After the carts are loaded, they are either directly placed on trucks or stored in a cooler room until they are needed. Trucks are then driven to the tarmac and the food is loaded onto the aircraft.
Delayed flights add an extra wrinkle of complexity to this large operation. Food is then stored in cool storage as long as possible, but, in some circumstances, it needs to be destroyed and new food must be produced for the flight.
Creating an impressive meal on the ground is difficult enough and making one that will be enjoyed 30,000 feet in the air a few hours later is that much more difficult. The people at Emirates Flight Catering make it seem easy.