Flying High in Food Service

Inflight catering kitchens face a host of difficult challenges.

By Don Shapiro

Airlinefood3Preparing tens of thousands of meals a day is a difficult enough task, but the challenge is compounded when the food will be consumed many hours later by diners sitting 30,000 feet or more up in the air. The altitude and even the “white noise” ambience on the aircraft may affect how taste buds react, blast chilling after cooking removes moisture, and the reheating process on board the plane can overly dry out the food unless the operation is well timed. When serious turbulence suddenly occurs, the delays in food service may bring unwelcome results.

During typhoon season in particular, the caterers have to keep a close eye on changes in flight schedules. Under regulations of the Quality & Safety Alliance In-flight Services (QSAI) program, cold food has to be delivered to the aircraft within 24 hours of its preparation and hot food within 48 hours. When bad weather intervenes, the food that was originally prepared may have to be discarded and a whole new supply provided.

Airlinefood4Another difficulty not found in an ordinary restaurant is that the air caterers have to be able to supply a broad range of special meals to meet the particular dietary requirements of passengers who order them in advance. A typical range of choices is the one offered by China Airlines: Infant/baby food, children’s meal, bland/soft diet, diabetic diet, fruit platter, gluten intolerant meal, Hindu meal, Hindu vegetarian meal, Muslim meal, Kosher meal (individually packed, provided by outside suppliers), low-calorie meal, low-fat meal, low-salt meal, low-lactose meal, no-beef meal, seafood or fish meal, raw vegetarian/fruit meal, vegan meal, vegetarian Oriental meal, and vegetarian meal Western-style – a total of 20 different special options.

In Taiwan, the challenge is taken up daily by three inflight catering companies, all located in Taoyuan in the vicinity of the Taoyuan International Airport. The largest is China Pacific Catering Services (CPCS), a joint venture of China Airlines (51%) and the Hong Kong-based Swire group (49%), the parent of Cathay Pacific. The chairman is Janice Lai, former director-general of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

With a staff of slightly over 1,000 personnel (including 105 chefs and cooks), CPCS supplies an average of about 37,000 meals a day – or more than 1 million meals a month. That volume requires the monthly consumption of some 13 metric tons of fresh fruit, 10.3 of vegetables, 7.4 of poultry, 4.2 of rice, 2.85 of pork, 1.65 of beef, 1.36 of eggs, and 1.25 of seafood. The meals are served on about 150 flights per day, both for the two partner airlines as well as some 30 other carriers, including Delta, United, KLM, Korean Air, and various Chinese airlines serving cross-Strait direct routes.

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Above, a children’s meal is presented during a Hello Kitty flight. Below, flight attendants wearing Hello Kitty aprons present Hello Kitty inflight meals

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Since 2003, when the impact of the SARS epidemic on air travel forced CPCS to shut down the majority of its equipment and put its staff on half-day shifts, CPCS has also sought to diversify by doing institutional catering. On a B2B basis it offers baked goods and other delicacies as corporate premiums and gifts, and B2C it provides snacks and frozen TV dinners to consumers who order from its website for home delivery. “We expect to do a big business at Chinese New Year,” says Vincent Tseng. “Our selection includes both Chinese food and Western cuisine like beef stew Provencal.”

The second-largest operation belongs to the Evergreen Sky Catering Corp. (EGSC), which works closely with its Evergreen Group affiliate EVA Airways and also provides food service for departures from Taiwan by 16 other carriers, among them All Nippon Airways, Singapore Airlines, Emirates Airlines, Thai Airways, and Malaysia Airlines. According to the company, its staff of over 900 prepares an average of about 27,000 meals daily.

President Jason Lin proudly notes the popularity of the meals that EGSC has developed for service aboard the Hello Kitty-themed aircraft that EVA flies to Paris, three airports in Japan, Seoul, Singapore, Guam, and Hong Kong. “In the presentation, everything is Hello Kitty,” he says. “You can see Hello Kitty on the main course, the dessert, everywhere. The customers love it.”

Another new initiative has been to invite prominent Japanese chef Motokazu Nakamura, master chef at a three-star Michelin restaurant in Kyoto, to develop a series of Japanese dishes for both business and economy-class meals. Nakamura is scheduled to visit Taiwan this month to instruct the Evergreen staff on how to prepare the dishes he designed for EVA Airways. “We’re hoping to upgrade all our Japanese cuisine,” notes Jason Lin. “We’re also expanding our Japanese kitchen and recruiting more senior Japanese-cuisine chefs. We already have five chefs specializing in Japanese food, which is quite unusual [for non-Japanese companies] in the air catering business.”

The smallest of the three inflight kitchens, supplying some 8,00 meals a day, is TransAsia Catering Services, which along with TransAsia Airways is part of the Goldsun Group. It is the one with the longest history, however. Whereas EGSC was founded in 1993 and CPCS in 1994, TransAsia traces its history back to 1966 when SongShan Airport was still the international airport for Taipei. Before then, the Grand Hotel handled virtually all the airline catering in Taiwan, but the hotel abandoned the line of business more than a decade ago.

“Our scale used to be much larger,” says TransAsia Catering chairman Anita C.M. Lin. “At the peak, we had 16 airlines as customers, but now it’s down to five, with TransAsia Airways and Japan Airlines as the biggest. The main local airlines now have their own catering operations, and we also lost a lot of business because of the growing importance of airline alliances. TransAsia doesn’t belong to any alliance.” Membership in the SkyTeam alliance has given China Airlines an advantage in attracting customers for CPCS, while EVA’s Star Alliance affiliation does the same for EGSC.

 

Airlinefood8A focus on baked goods

Aware of its competitive disadvantages as a sky kitchen, TransAsia Catering more than a decade ago shifted direction to put more emphasis on bread-baking and candy-making. It runs a chain of bakeries, with the heavily patronized main store located just next door to its factory near the rear (cargo) entrance to the airport. “We started out with a shop of just 10 ping [360 square feet],” recalls Anita Lin. “But pretty soon we had to expand to 20 ping, then 30, and now it’s 100 ping. On Sundays and holidays it may attract up to 5,000 customers.”

TransAsia is also the supplier of baked goods to the Hi-Life convenience stores, and provides about half of the sandwiches and pastries offered at Starbuck’s outlets, says Anita Lin. “Our plan is for the airline catering to steadily decline as a proportion of our total business,” she says. “Now it’s 50-50. In the future it perhaps will be 30-70.”

All three companies emphasize – and reemphasize – that the top priority in their business is food safety and hygiene. “We are an international business and have to take responsibility for the passengers’ health,” says Vincent Tseng at CPCS. “I always remind our staff that we can’t afford to have even one incident.” EGSC’s Jason Lin refers to the strict food-handling guidelines set by QSAI and notes that their inspectors may come to check on a catering operation at any time without notice. “They might call you and say ‘I’m at the airport – come pick me up,’” he says. “Then they conduct a two-day inspection. It’s very serious.”

Taiwan’s air caterers have all qualified for ISO quality certification. CPCS has eight hygiene officers on the staff, follows the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system promoted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and conducts microbiological tests on 20 samples a day. EGSC prides itself on its two in-house laboratories, including an ultra-trace lab with advanced laboratory equipment that can detect impurities of just 0.1 parts per trillion.

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TransAsia has diversified into the wholesale and retail baking business. Its store near the airport can attract up to 5,000 customers on a Sunday or holiday.

“Quality assurance starts with control of raw materials,” explains Vincent Tseng. “We have strict vendor assessment procedures, and samples of every material have to be tested by both the production and QA teams before they can go into mass production.” The inflight catering firms also keep careful computerized records of the sources of all ingredients – procedures that were already in place before the recent spate of food scandals in Taiwan, but which have since been tightened even further. “When we buy produce, we inspect it a lot more carefully than most companies outside this industry would do, and all suppliers have to submit certification about the origins of the products and ingredients,” says TransAsia’s Anita Lin. “But because we demand a higher standard, our costs are also higher. You have to pay for it.”

The environment in which the food is prepared is also crucial. The temperature in each company’s production facilities is kept at 18 degrees Celsius, with the multi-story CPCS building even equipped with refrigerated freight-elevator shafts to maintain a constant temperature as food is transported between floors. “It’s a quality as well as a safety issue,” says Anita Lin. “You have to be very strict about temperature and humidity to achieve stable product quality.”

 

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EGSC laboratory’s liquid chromatography quadrupole mass spectrometer is the most advanced ultra trace lab equipment available.

Improved equipment

Over the past several decades, improvements in technology have helped the air caterers try to assure fresher-tasting meals for air passengers. At TransAsia, for example, Anita Lin says the company has started using vacuum freeze drying instead of blast chilling to bring down the temperature of food after cooking without as much loss of moisture.

Vincent Tseng cites the installation in the past decade of steam ovens on many aircraft – especially those serving Asian routes – as a major advance. “Reheating with a conventional convection oven tends to leave food dry,” he notes. “It’s less of an issue for Western dishes cooked with a sauce, but it’s a problem for Chinese cooking, particularly steamed rice. Now with the steam oven, you reheat for 20 minutes – 10 minutes of steam and 10 minutes of dry heat – and you get a very satisfactory result.”

For first-class passengers on flights to and from Japan, the aircraft may now also have electric rice cookers on board to ensure that the rice is freshly cooked. And microwave ovens may be available to attend to the needs of passengers who wake up hungry after having slept through the regular meal service.

Microwaves are also a big convenience for the private jet catering business that represents a small but growing sideline for both CPCS and EGSC. “Private business jets always have a microwave on board, so you can reheat any time,” says Vincent Tseng. “But it’s still a complicated business. Although we have a long list of options on our menu, sometimes the executive has a special requirement and we have to accommodate. He may ask for dumplings from Din Tai Fung, for example, and we get a lot of requests for bubble milk tea. Or he may demand a particular brand of mineral water, and we have to chase around to find it on the market.”

Tseng also notes how food preferences have changed over the years. “In the early days of aviation, tickets were very expensive and only the wealthy could afford to fly,” he says. “Inflight meals in those days featured lobster, abalone, caviar, foie gras – every high-value food you can think of. But instead of that rich food, people now want lighter meals. We include more veggies and stir-fries, and reduce the protein consumption. Besides, we have to take endangered species into account. On China Airlines there is no shark’s fin and no caviar.”

Still, some old favorites remain on the menu by popular demand. Tseng cites beef noodles, braised pork chops, and lurou fan (滷肉飯), Taiwanese rice with meat sauce, as examples. “These are dishes that make you feel warm,” he says. “They’re a reminder of home and family.”

As to future trends in the airline catering industry, Tseng foresees that “food will become even simpler and we’ll have to subcontract more to vendors.” In what is a labor-intensive industry, “labor costs are getting higher and higher, and it’s hard to recruit employees for what are seen as low-end jobs,” such as peeling and slicing fruits and vegetables. Already CPCS is subcontracting about 20% of its requirement for such work, and the volume is expected to continue to grow steadily. “The vendors will wash and precut vegetables and fruit according to specifications from the executive chef regarding size and shape,” Tseng says.

When taking a no-frills Southwest Airlines flight in the United States some years ago, Anita Lin says she realized how much the economics of the airline industry would affect the catering business. “Long-haul flights will still need meal service, but in general the airline business is trending toward being just a form of transportation to get passengers from one place to another. The meals on board are not as central to the experience as they used to be, and so the airlines are spending less money on food than they used to.”

Jason Lin of EGSC is more sanguine, despite noting the growth of low-cost carriers, which usually don’t serve meals, at least for free. “But I’m not worried because most business people still prefer to fly on regular flights because of the certainty of the schedule,” he says. “I still see that catering has a bright future.”

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