A Day in the Life of an Airline Meal

Posted Jul 22nd 2010 05:11 PMUpdated Aug 24th 2010 02:04 PM



We've all heard complaints about the airline food served in coach; occasionally these complaints are even funny.

And last month a USA Today story reported unsanitary conditions at some major airline caterers. So what are we to think about those meals that arrive all neatly wrapped in aluminum foil? Are they just hastily thrown together to ease the hunger of passengers who can't afford business or first-class fares?

To find answers to these questions, AOL decided to track a single airline meal, from the time it is planned and placed on an airline's menu to the moment it arrives at the passenger's seat. Here's what we found....

6 p.m. The passenger confirms her seat assignment – 31A – for tomorrow's flight from Chicago to London. She doesn't know it, but her meal choice is getting ready for takeoff, too.

She's going to select grilled chicken breast with orange sesame ginger sauce, served with jasmine white rice and a side of broccoli and carrots. It's taken a year of development for this dish to make it to the United menu, with three teams of 35 people considering menu items, procuring ingredients, testing and tasting food, and monitoring the quality of the product to the passenger. It's a highly choreographed event from start to finish.

"We did a lot of work with the ginger sauce," says United Executive Chef Gerry Gulli, who's been with the company for 25 years. "You're eating with your eyes when you first get it, and not only is this dish attractive, it's very flavorful."

Midnight. Dishes for United's Flight 958, which departs in 18 hours, are getting washed at Gate Gourmet catering, right on O'Hare property. In a green effort to conserve resources and reduce waste, United doesn't have a lot of disposable products, according to Stuart Benzal, United's managing director of onboard global product. Instead, bowls, plates, cups and other utensils are hauled off the aircraft after each flight and sent to one of the 52 kitchens that United uses around the world.

Most kitchens operate 24 hours. "After 10 at night, it goes into equipment processing (mode)" says Benzal, which means cleaning hundreds of plates, bowls, cups, saucers, trays and utensils for the next day.

2 a.m. By now, the passenger in seat 31A sleeps soundly, her bags packed for tomorrow's flight. While she's sleeping, wheels are in motion to get her chicken dinner ready.

Alison Hough, director of product planning, planned and ordered chicken for this meal months ago. She knows, based on customer preferences and numbers, how many chickens to order and send to the caterers. Her team ensures that there is fresh, quality product for all the major components of the meal, while smaller detail items like seasonings are covered by the catering kitchen.

5:30 a.m. Chef Danielle Nahal and her team of eight to 12 cooks and food handlers, arrive at Gate Gourmet to begin the day's preparations. The kitchen will be making lots of meals today for flights to London, Asia, Amsterdam and Paris, so the prep work covers 250-300 servings of each entrée. Though the kitchen is very large, it is also very busy and crowded. Nearly 300 people work on a shift, and the kitchen runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It's very cold in the kitchens to ensure food safety and food integrity. "You can't just walk into a kitchen," Benzal says. "You fill out a health form, go to a wash station and wash your hands, use disinfectant, wear a lab coat; your hair and head are covered. There's even a face mask," he says. "You look more like a surgeon than someone preparing to chop salads." This chilled environment is maintained throughout the production.

6.00 a.m. Twelve hours before flight time, United delivers the final counts and order for meals, including the chicken with orange sesame glaze. Gate Gourmet accepts the order and begins processing to the count specifications. "We're producing in very large batches," says Chef Nahal. "Sauces are made by the gallon. Vegetables are done by the pound – about 500 pounds [for one day's meal preparation]."

Executive Chef Gerry Gulli started testing the flavors and sauces for his mandarin chicken nearly a year ago. Since United likes to change out the menus every three months, and needs to have at least two economy meal choices per flight, Chef Gulli is a busy guy. The chefs must also adjust recipes for the diminished taste buds people experience while in flight. "We compensate for that with cooking techniques, using bold flavors and marinades," says Chef Nahal.

United gets about 3,000 comments on meals per month, says Benzal. "We do read all of them. Product managers review them for menu improvements." The majority of United customers have an "American contemporary" preference, with a focus on healthy food that is light on sauces and coverings.

To meet that expectation, United tests new menu items in its Red Carpet Club, and sometimes invites patrons to a special tasting event with one of their marquee chefs. A few lucky fliers joined Chef Charlie Trotter at his restaurant this year, where ingredients were presented and diners asked to help create a great airline meal.

In addition to Executive Chef Gulli and the marquee chefs, two chefs from the major catering firms also help in designing menu selections. "Chefs comes up with five to seven entrées with chicken, and a table of 35-40 meals that make the first cut," Benzal says. Then, it's on to focus group testing and a final meal selection.

When the item is selected, Allison Hough's procurement team creates an ingredient list for the recipe, a shopping list of items the catering kitchen will need.

9:00 a.m. The grilled chicken breast with orange sesame ginger glaze is being prepared according to recipe instructions. Color photos guide the preparers, so they know exactly how the plate should appear before it arrives at seat 31A. Glazes are measured and blended, the chicken grilled and covered, and broccoli steamed and arranged. Chefs work at different stations, so four to five people may be working on the mandarin chicken meal at any given time.

11.00 a.m. The plated meal for the passenger in 31A, along with nearly 250 other entrées, gets loaded onto trays. Trays are inserted into trolleys, where they sit in a blast chiller until called for delivery to the aircraft.

1:00 p.m. Seat 31A passenger locks her front door and jumps into a cab for the airport. She wants to allow plenty of time to clear security, as well as time to relax in the airport lounge. Traffic's backed up on the way to O'Hare, so she's happy she left a little early.

Catering service trolley drivers return from lunch and get ready to load trays onto their trucks for afternoon flights. These trucks are also chilled, keeping the food cold for the short trip from kitchen to aircraft. The drivers will take about an hour for the loading, counting and sealing of trucks.

2:30 p.m. The truck for Flight 958 delivers the meals for the flight, including the chicken with orange sesame glaze destined for seat 31A today. Each high-loader truck takes a trolley of trays, and the driver puts them onto the aircraft. The meals fit into a refrigerated compartment. It will take the driver about 30 minutes to get to the aircraft, then another 45 minutes to an hour to load the meals onto the plane.

4:00 p.m. The truck drivers complete the loading, as they must be off the aircraft at least an hour before passengers begin boarding. Passenger 31A puts down her newspaper, gathers up her purse and backpack, and lines up to board the plane.

6:00 p.m. Flight 958 takes off, bound for London. Flight attendants take economy class meal orders from the three selections: mandarin chicken, a pasta dish, and a beef meal. The passenger in seat 31A chooses the chicken with orange sesame sauce.

7:00 p.m. Flight attendants are busy heating the fully cooked but cold meals in a convection oven. The convection oven circulates the hot air and ensures meals are heated evenly and at the same temperature. It takes about 20 minutes to bring them to dining temperature, and then they are loaded onto carts to head down the aisle.

A secret that Chef Gulli offers about keeping the rice moist: He adds a blanched cabbage leaf on top of the rice, which is removed just before serving.

Flight attendants are also following full color photos of the dishes and instructions from the Chef. "Any time there's new food, we make sure the flight attendants can execute it properly," says Chef Gulli. "We spend upwards of $500 million a year on onboard service." (United would not provide a per meal cost for the mandarin chicken dish, stating that contracts with suppliers were too complicated to parse out single dish costs.)

8:00 p.m. The orange chicken with sesame ginger glaze arrives at seat 31A, hot, colorful, and prepared to Chef Gulli's specifications. It's just another day in the life of an airline meal – but a full year in the making.

Does this information change your opinion of airplane food?
I'm more likely to eat airplane food.1 (33.3%)
I'm less likely to eat airplane food.1 (33.3%)
This information does not change my opinion.1 (33.3%)

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Winner The Happy

For the cooking conditions in-flight, economy cabin is very difficult regardless of B777XP or B747OC. If the article was telling the true story, 31A should be in Y and how can 3 flight attendants working that cabin be able to take meal orders? If you are on an Asian-bound flight, the entrees in economy cabin almost always not cater to the local taste at all. How often you see the veggie be that green? And where did the author seen the cabbage leaf covering the rice from the entree in economy meals?

June 08 2011 at 3:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When I traveled across country, with a plane change (back in the 90's), we were given "breakfast. Banana, bagel, cereal, and beverage. At plane change point, I bought a package lunch from an airport kiosk. When my companions remarked we would get a meal onboard; I said "Yeah. Breakfast (time zone change). My stomach is on east coast time. Sure enough the plane meal was BREAKFAST. Now I notice most airlines just give stale peanuts or snack cakes and soda or coffee (which is strong enough to use for jet fuel). I now drive where I am going, and eat where I choose.

December 16 2010 at 9:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I applaud you for your efforts on your article on “A Day in the Life of an Airline Meal” However, your research appears a bit limited and based on the best case scenario. United Airlines painted the perfect picture for you, which makes me question your ability to research the truth.
My comment may seem a bit long winded, but bear with me, as it will soon become clear.
You chose the perfect aircraft with minimum passengers. A B777 XP with a capacity of passengers of 253 in economy complimented with 4 to 5 flight attendants. This aircraft has confection ovens. On the flipside, on most of our long haul flights we operate a B747-400 aircraft that are in excess of 30+ years old. We use the same old cooking equipment that is as old as the aircraft. The 747-400 has a crew of 7 flight attendants with 305 passengers in economy. The heating methods we use are called “New Tech” carts where the food tray’s are loaded and never removed by the crew members. Catering loads 9 X 33=297 + a partial cart for a full 305 (passenger count) trays carts into the economy galley. The carts are boarded into a specific location where cold chillers are located. About 50% of the time the chillers that are to keep the food at a safe temperature are inoperative, in such cases dry ice is boarded to keep the product cold. Keep in mind the age of the aircraft and galley equipment, the dry ice freezes the food. On very long hauls such as San Francisco to London, Sydney or Hong Kong, dry ice evaporates and food becomes room temperature. The “New Tech” carts are old with frayed electrical wires and rarely heats the entrees to a safe edible product. If you order a special Kosher meal, their impossible to heat in the New Tech cart as they have been sealed and wrapped and boarded nearly frozen so they end up in a ‘warming’ oven before take-off, insufficient for safe consumption.
More economy meals are served on a B747-400 than a B777 aircraft. This is the truth about “A Day in the Life of an Airline Meal” as observed by a 22 year veteran and Purser of United Airlines

October 20 2010 at 5:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
barrie whitehead

sorry the website aforementioned was supposed to be skytrax .com

September 24 2010 at 4:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
barrie whitehead

find the website sktrax .com and look for passenger reviews on airline meals,about 400 airlines are listed,compare the US companies with the asian ones and you will see how inferior in every respect the american carriers are. The waitresses on us carriers are probably the most miserable you are likely
to encounter anywhere

September 24 2010 at 3:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ole Guy

Living in the Atlanta area, my employer books me on Delta for the great majority of flights, with the other majors, to include Continental, taking up the slack. More and more, however, I am requesting, when feasable, Continental. WHY? On long flights, Continental somehow manages to provide finger sandwich-type meals ALL AROUND...certainly not a full course meal, just something to "fill the hole" for that flight to the west coast. On Delta, however, unless I get a bump-up to the front of the airplane, the best one can expect is a bag of nuts and one of them cookies.

C'mon, Delta, surely you can do better.

September 09 2010 at 1:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David Harris

I fly to the Middle East from JFK 3 to 4 times a year. I always order Kosher food. I was
never disappointed. I fly Continental, Swiss, EL-AL, Luftansa, and Austrian.

August 26 2010 at 6:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Whether I fly for work [non-profits] oor for vacation, the cost of the flight comes out of my pocket. I have selected the airline I want to use. I would like to think I am viewed as a valued customer, and due the same silmple considerations I extend to people. I would like a cold or hot drink of a regional variety, with a refill, please, fresh, tasty, healthy snacks of a regional variety [no salt, no chemicals]; I'd like re-useable cups, glasses, and etc. please, and I'd like a smile, a "glad you are flying with us."

Remember, I select the airline I use; ff an airline cannot treat me nicely, I can find another one!

I think all airline executives should have to eat the same meals we do, and under the same conditions, every single time they fly anywhere!

July 26 2010 at 3:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tony Hernandez

Nothing compares when in comes to in-flight meals with Cathay Pacific Airways. Aside from taste and quality but most importantly they are served straight from the heart that's why you'll love it.

July 26 2010 at 3:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Harry Hurt

I'm not sure, but I think there is a regulation requiring in-flight meals over a certain distance. That may be why meals are served on international flights.

July 26 2010 at 2:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply