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Hygiene, preparation and washing up: a few challenges for in-flight catering
In-flight catering in business aviation is an industry which is forever striving to meet the exacting standards of its clientele.

In-flight catering in business aviation is an industry which is forever striving to meet the exacting standards of its clientele. Preparation and storage space within the cabin can be restrictive, yet customers nowadays are regularly provided with ingredients and dining experiences that replicate, or sometimes better, the very finest dishes and the most exclusive 'on the ground' restaurants.

As ceo of Baltic Ground Services Poland Linas Geguzis explains, the difficulties go beyond the constraints of the cabin: “Of course the main factor here is the food, and preparing it for serving at an altitude of up to 35,000ft is a challenge not only because of the limitations with regard to preparation process, but also because of the effect such altitude has on the taste buds. The really challenging factor is the new market situation where most of the catering services are outsourced. Caterers must learn to think of themselves as experts in logistics to survive in a rapidly growing market, whereby every minute spent on the ground costs money.”

Geguzis feels that economic troubles have had multiple effects on the in-flight catering industry: “On the one hand, the rising number of aircraft in the industry has created a growing demand for onboard catering services. On the other, the way catering providers operate could not remain the same as it had been prior to 2008, since the pressure to cut down expenses has led airlines to rethink their business models. In the market where outsourcing seems to be a solution largely favoured by airlines, catering providers had to come up with ways of adapting and requalifying in order to survive.”

These adaptations have been various. One aspect which seems to have been heightened is the pivotal role played by business aviation flight attendants. This is certainly true for Air Culinaire Worldwide, which has recently appointed John Detloff as vp, flight attendant. Ceo Cliff Smith comments: “We know that flight attendants are vital crew members and their knowledge and creativity often make the trip. The addition of John represents our ongoing commitment to the flight attendant community and is central to our vision of redefining the in-flight catering experience.”

Paul Schweitzer, senior vp sales and marketing, furthers this: “The corporate flight attendant's role is expanding and they are under tremendous pressure to perform. They are managing ever-increasing passenger requests, and as the face of the crew to the passengers, they are in need of solutions to help them when the unforeseen occurs. John will work closely with the flight attendant community to develop tailored solutions that will allow them to demonstrate their immense value in ensuring the safe and successful outcome of a flight.

“We recently announced that we are developing a comprehensive programme to meet the evolving and expanding needs of corporate flight attendants. John will spearhead this by identifying current pains, such as ever-changing international trash removal and agriculture regulations, how to correctly verify travel documents, and customs and entry and clearance procedures.

“We actively engage the corporate flight attendant community to iden-tify what they need around the world, both aesthetically and functionally.”

Jet Catairing ceo Thomas Kraenzlein underscores this, as he believes that getting everything right from the crew's perspective is on a level with ensuring the satisfaction of the passengers.

“The key to our expansion is oriented on the cabin crew's comfort and needs. Our mission is to serve both passengers and crew members as best we can,” he explains. It is a view also shared by Corporate Catering ceo Nicola Hubert, who cites the importance of her prior experience as a flight attendant in forming her catering company: “Having been a private jet flight attendant prior to starting up with catering, I can fully understand the needs and problems of the crews,” she says.

Aside from the central importance of the crew serving the food, the most pertinent issue is of course the food itself. Speed is undoubtedly of the essence, with London Executive Aviation md George Galanopolous enthusing that its record is “providing a three-course meal in 27 minutes to 10 passengers.” But quality of ingredients and their sourcing is something that the current business jet traveller is becoming increasingly concerned with. Bon Soiree recently conducted a survey and found that even in the last six months there have been trends. Owner and founder Derek Freeman comments: “The results showed that visitors to the UK this summer seem to be caught up in the nation's celebrations of events such as the birth of the royal baby and have been influenced by television cookery programmes like The Great British Bake Off. This has led to a huge spike in demand to create vintage style afternoon tea, designer cupcakes, cakes and biscuits and speciality teas.

“It has been fascinating seeing what our chefs have been cooking for our passengers over the last six months. The increase in requests for cream teas, cocktail sandwiches and cakes makes us realise how the mood of a particular period can alter the food choices of clients.”

The provenance of the food served by catering firms has become of increasing concern to passengers. Freeman notes: “Our crew regularly specify Welsh lamb, Scottish beef, regional cheeses and even specific waters for the origin of their salmon. UK-based clients appear to be tuned in to the quality that is often assured by ordering seasonal food.”

But it is not just sourcing which is of prime concern to travellers. Fresh healthy foods also continue to be a key factor. Freeman reports that 25 per cent of US catered flights opt for meat-free dishes that are low in fat and high in fibre. One in every 15 orders catered for by the chefs at Bon Soiree are for gluten free products and for those with a lactose intolerance. Janus Kamradt of Hangar8 feels the same way, as the health-conscious passenger is increasing prevalent: “In-flight catering has changed in the last two years, and we are doing almost exclusively healthy foods, such as salad and seafood platters. Most passengers prefer to drink mineral water and green teas.”

Comlux points out that its passengers are veering towards lighter options, with Cantonese and Szechuan cuisine fast becoming favourites: “Our vip charter passengers' favourite dishes range from steamed sui mai with abalone and steamed crystal shrimp dumplings, through to the dessert of choice – a mango pudding with aloe vera.” Sascha Gassmann of DeliSky supports this: “Currently, healthy, organic and light food is very popular, European or Asian style. Especially sushi, even though from the hygiene point of view this is not suitable at all for in-flight catering. Nevertheless it is still very trendy and very often ordered, often for Russian passengers. Most caterers we are working with are also doing their best to provide halal and even kosher food. Some of them, at the major locations, have their own certified halal or kosher kitchen and chefs.

“On the other hand, Jewish and Arabic people flying around the world in business jets are obviously aware that they cannot get 100 per cent halal or kosher food at every location around the world so they seem to be used to it and are relaxed about it.”

Allergies are of course honoured but Gassmann says there are never any guarantees: “Somebody with a strong nut allergy will be in high danger on a flight if the food contains even the smallest amount of nuts. One of our catering partners has stated to me that it is almost impossible to have a 100 per cent nut-free kitchen since traces of nuts can be found in any kind of food.”

DeliSky clients are also demanding the freshest produce: “There is a consistent trend towards healthy light and fresh food, such as raw vegetables, fruit, freshly squeezed juices and also light, hot dishes such as Japanese.”

Gassmann points out that in order to serve the highest quality dishes, the work can sometimes be outsourced: “For special cuisines, such as Japanese, the caterers usually purchase the dishes from top notch Japanese restaurants rather than cooking it themselves,” he says.

Paul Schweitzer of Air Culinaire tells EBAN that its Selections of the Middle East menu is made with certified halal products in accordance with Middle East customs, and as with Gassmann's firm this points to a passenger who is not just health-conscious, but may also have religious observances which must be upheld. The provision for Jewish and Muslim clients has broadened, with many caterers, including Craig Sharp of High Flying Food, choosing halal suppliers on this basis: “Halal meat is a regular request,” he says. “I am extremely proud of our ability to fulfil bespoke requests 'off menu' too. Our willingness to prepare specific requests results in excellent feedback and subsequent referrals for new business, and my team of chefs are recruited for their wide range of cuisine skills while also having a speciality such as pastry or sushi.

“Sometimes we have requests such as both gluten and dairy free combined, which may be challenging – but we always find a solution, and we always choose our suppliers on that basis, allowing for flexibility.”

Suppliers are fundamental to the quality of the end product, and as Jirina Kubova, chief flight attendant for ABS Jets of Prague, illustrates, sourcing high quality produce has not always been an easy task: “Catering for business jets in Prague is no problem nowadays, because there are now several specialised suppliers. A few years ago the situation was different. There was a limited choice of catering and it was pretty expensive. It was not at all easy to serve demanding charter customers.

“Our flight attendants had to be very well organised and informed about restaurants in Prague to serve our customers the highest quality of food.”

In-flight caterers are now having to choose these suppliers under a more stringent budget too, as a byproduct of the 2008 recession. This is easier said than done, as it is impossible to reduce some costs, according to Hubert at Corporate Catering: “You cannot save on the cooling chain, so price is what it is in the end, to guarantee safety.” Hubert asserts that to keep up with demand and competition, versatility is key: “In this global industry you need to be versatile and offer global food.”

To offer global food is a noble aim, but for many companies it is also about getting the costs right. Schweitzer comments: “We're continuing to invest in internal systems that increase our efficiency, which we can then pass on to clients via savings. We also understand that our clients are feeling the effects, so we make sure to give them plenty of menu options that meet their budget requirements.”

Indeed some operators think that this has gone too far, with Corporatejets in Barcelona believing that for the product on offer, cost is far too high: “From a general point of view, prices are quite above the quality provided. Even though food presentation is nowadays excellent, price and quality are not equal.”

DeliSky's Gassmann presents a different view, and is of the opinion that prices are as competitive as possible, with customers very well-educated nowadays as to the finances involved: “The economic downturn has resulted in much stronger focus on costs in the business aviation industry. Whereas in the past, business jet operators and private jet owners haven't been aware of the catering expenses, nowadays many operators work with strict budgets per flight or even per person per flight.” Price must be as much a priority for operators as it is for customers.

Another important consideration is the storage and preservation of the dishes prior to and even post-serving. Gassmann describes food hygiene as a “massive issue” in the business aviation trade, with not enough being done to monitor it: “Only a few catering providers are actually strictly working according to the well known HACCP standards,” he believes.

“The food is usually delivered two to four hours before departure. Most business jets don't have a fridge in the galley and only some FBOs and handlers have a fridge available to cool food. This is a particular issue during summer time. Good caterers provide cooling boxes with wet and dry ice so that the food can be kept cold for several hours. But the problem is that cooling boxes are rather expensive and are very often not returned to the caterer once the plane has left.”

Dry ice can also pose problems: “It is often used but it is considered as dangerous goods on board an aircraft and the dangers of dry ice for aviation safety are often underestimated. It dissipates CO2 gas into the cabin,” he adds.

Hubert has been horrified at some of the safety standards she has witnessed, and cites the low quality aircraft galleys as a stark challenge: “Galleys have not been developed by any means and this needs quick attention,” she remarks. “Most aircraft galleys are poorer equipped than a camping wagon. The passengers expect a five-star meal with a silver service. But if they only knew where the food has been stored in the last hours before serving, in non-chilled cabinets, drawers or even the forward lavatory, I think most passengers would go ballistic!

“Food does not stop spoiling because it reached the FBO. The opposite is true – this is when the food starts its phase in developing bacterial growth.

“There is a 'kitchen' where the drawers are filled with the wonderful china dishes, shining cutlery and sparkling baccarat glasses but no place to put the food.”

Hubert's concerns do not stop there: “The next challenge after serving is the washing-up. The water is often unsafe or not hot enough for washing the dishes. Furthermore, garbage is just as hot a topic; all the packaging the catering came in has to be disposed of during the flight with a waste place sometimes not bigger than a A4 page in all directions.

“Galleys are the most creative place for flight crew to work, but the industry forgot to modify them, when they made aircraft with more range and more luxury,” she says.

Despite the trickier aspects associated with the in-flight business aviation catering industry, there has been no shortage of lighter moments in recent times, with companies fielding a wide variety of bizarre requests. “Beef brain with mashed potatoes,” quotes Craig Sharp on the subject. London Executive Aviation's Clare Armstrong has also dealt with a pop star of late who requested Wotsits in a Pot Noodle. “Although that wasn't too difficult to achieve,” she says.

Such requests are commonplace, and not always in line with the local delicacies: “We've seen it all. From the high net worth individual who wants only red M&Ms and diet Dr Pepper, to the request for double cheeseburgers in rural India. No matter how difficult the request, we leverage our global partners to meet our customers' needs,” says Paul Schweitzer. Aerochefs also describes occasions when it receives orders for pet food: “Food for a travelling dog is a rare occurence, but an order for pet food does happen from time to time. Our policy, of course, is to duly process such an order. We have heard comments, saying that on some flights, dogs seem to enjoy better meals than the crew.” Ike Riekstina, cabin crew at London Executive Aviation, also recalls the unlikeliest of orders: “I recently worked on a European music tour which came to an end in a small village in northern Spain. The band requested, out of the blue as part of their final meal, cottage pie – not exactly 'rock star' food, but also not easy to find in the land of tapas and paella. No-one locally had any idea what it was or how to make it. I had to source a recipe online myself and asked the head chef at the village's best restaurant to prepare the meal, which he kindly agreed to do. After much tasting and nodding of heads, we presented it to the band who loved it and vowed to return to the chef's restaurant on their next tour.”

It seems apt to end with arguably the most significant and current trend in in-flight catering, which is the online and mobile ordering system. This is something which has rocketed in recent times and for Gassmann it is his company's USP: “Our catering order system and our iOS app which are specially designed for the business aviation industry are a great asset to us. Through one single point of access, our customers can order their catering at over 120 different airports with a clear overview of the costs.”

Hubert reinforces this, but says the system is not always helpful to the caterer because of 'buddy' behaviour: “There is little doubt that today, email is the way to order. The problem with that is, as everybody can send an order with their iPhone or tablet, the orders come in with no structure.

“It all comes in like we are buddies and we have to remember the dislikes, allergies and reheating facilities on each aircraft. There is no more corporate identity, no structure.

“Crews also think you have a person 24/7 sitting at the computer just waiting for their order. If you do not write back, they just forward the order on to the next caterer and that's it. No calling to confirm, no cancelling when passed on to another caterer. Sheer buddy-type behaviour.”

And though the system has been streamlined, Carlos Aviation Catering's Martin Henschel believes another problem stems from so-called catering 'brokers' attempting to generate revenue: “There are more and more companies that are trying to get in the market as a catering order broker. They get the orders from the crews and send them to us.

“This way, we do not have the direct contact to the crews any more and the whole service gets more expensive for the crews, because the catering broker company wants to make money with it too, without actually doing anything.”

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