Airlines use sophisticated global networks to meet their catering needs, as Michael King discovers
Airlines have a profusion of means by which they can meet the highly varied and complex catering requirements of their worldwide networks. Many airline groups own catering subsidiaries which operate at their ‘home’ airports, for example, and these generally serve a wide range of carriers as well as the group’s own airline. Some larger airlines also run subsidiaries providing catering services from other airports within their networks.
Internal resources are usually supplemented by local agents on specific lanes or at particular airports, or by outsourcing some – or in a few cases all – of their needs to global catering experts such as LSG Sky Chefs, Gate Gourmet or Alpha. These specialists offer comprehensive service ‘menu’ options aimed at different types of airlines and supported by sophisticated supply chain solutions.
Caterers traditionally operate their own ground and plane handling equipment, typically using high loaders to deliver supplies into the aircraft and then a range of equipment in-cabin to suit the particular needs of the aircraft. Some of the largest third-party caterers also offer value-added packages including IT support, menu design, last mile provisioning and the supply of handling and on-board catering equipment to further increase the outsourcing options of carriers.
Cathay Pacific Airways, one of the world’s largest airlines by any measure, served 17.6 million meals and 1.2 million bottles of wine in 2010. Last year, the airline carried some 27.6 million passengers, a rise of 2.9% compared with 2010. Cathay hubs at Hong Kong International Airport where it purchases catering supplies and airport logistics services from group subsidiary, Cathay Pacific Catering Services (see box).
“The aim of the airline’s catering team is to provide enjoyable and nutritious meals for all its passengers on all its flights,” explained Charles Grossrieder, Cathay Pacific Airway’s Catering Services Manager. “We organise everything we need globally from Hong Kong.”
Based on extensive customer feedback and local knowledge, Cathay’s food and drink menus are tailored to meet the specific needs of customer sets by cabin on each route. Catering supply chain and gate delivery arrangements are then aligned to meet these requirements.
“We use historical data to establish demand by coach, nationality, different food requirements, ethnicity etc,” said Grossrieder. “And we build this into our forward planning so we can satisfy the majority of our customers. So if we’re going to the U.S. we have more American food. If it’s China, then it’s more Chinese. In the Middle East it’s halal meat and so on.”
Cathay selects its global caterers using stringent criteria. “The caterer needs to fit our needs and we audit them to make sure they do,” said Grossrieder. “We do market research, run tenders etc.
“We choose to run a mix of caterers rather than a global partner. This can involve more risk than using a global partner, but getting it right for the customer on each lane is the main priority and that’s where we start from.
“In some ports we might be able to choose from five or six. In others, say in the Middle East, there is usually only one, normally state-owned. Everywhere is different. The unions and work practices are different. Our job is to get our caterer supplying the right food for us at the right time.”
Emirates takes a different network approach to Cathay. “Our principal relationship is with first tier airline caterers such as Do&Co, LSG, Alpha and Gate Gourmet,” said Robin Padgett, Vice President, Aircraft Catering at Emirates. “These are globally renowned organisations with the expertise to deliver complex, high-quality catering across our network every day of the year.”
Emirates’ commercial relationships with the suppliers are organised from Dubai by the airline’s own dedicated Procurement team, whose role is to ensure value for money on the best available products.
Emirates organises its catering around a centralised meal design team, which is also based in Dubai. Its role is to create quality, creative recipes which can be consistently delivered to passengers in-flight. “These recipes are implemented by our Regional Catering teams who manage the day-to-day relationships with our 60-plus catering partners located across the globe,” said Padgett.
Emirates’ catering and in-flight delivery is critical to the overall service offered to customers. “Because of our heritage, the food offering on our flights is based on the Arabian concept of generous hospitality,” he said. “This defining philosophy is applied across all three cabins – whether you are travelling in First, Business or Economy, we want to ensure that all passengers on Emirates flights receive a plentiful offering in keeping with the rich heritage of hospitality for which the Gulf is known.”
Padgett also explained that Emirates’ catering team and its suppliers act entirely separately from contracted ground handlers. “Catering is quite a separate function from ground handling,” he said. “Handlers have their own challenges in making sure an aircraft is unloaded or loaded, cleaned and made ready as quickly as possible. As caterers, our main aim is to make sure we co-ordinate to avoid disrupting their work during the busy period an aircraft is on the ground.
“At Emirates, we all work as a team to deliver the best service possible for our customers – catering, ground handlers and every other member of the Emirates family has a key role in ensuring that this is achieved.”
Like its competitors, British Airways uses a rigorous tender process to select its catering partners around the world, which consist of a mix of international and local suppliers. In the UK, for example, BA’s catering partners are Gate Gourmet and DHL at Heathrow and Alpha at Gatwick, while at London City Airport the airline uses LSG Skychefs.
An in-house team of contract managers oversees the performance of all suppliers and benchmarks this worldwide to ensure the same standards are in place across the network. “We provide our caterers with very strict footprints and templates for the dishes we want to serve onboard and this is driven by the research we do with our customers,” said Chris Cole, Food & Beverage Manager. “Our catering development teams meet with caterers both in the UK and abroad to quality check the product. And, of course, we speak with our customers regularly to ensure that the product meets their expectations, as well as ours.”
While the contracted caterers source much of the food for BA, the airline also runs its own in-house ‘innovation team’ which is charged with identifying new suppliers and evolving customers trends. “Our in-house team travels around the world, but we rely on our caterers both in the UK and overseas to keep in touch with local suppliers and to provide us with the best possible ingredients and catering supplies,” he said.
According to Cole, the catering functions provided both in-house and by suppliers are designed to underpin the fundamental ethos of BA’s catering strategy, which is to offer customers ‘good food that works when you fly.’
“Our offer is simple – British inspired but with an individual flair that reflects the taste and cultures of our varied international customers and is designed to meet the needs of those customers at whatever time of day or stage of their journey they are on,” he added. “Our cabin design and service style also reflects these qualities and it shouldn’t matter which cabin a British Airways customer is travelling in, the sentiment is the same.”
BOX – Cathay’s catering subsidiary is not confined to Hong Kong
CPCS, the catering subsidiary of Cathay Pacific Airways, was established in 1967 as Air Caterers Limited but was renamed CPCS in 1992 when Cathay Pacific decided to extend its in-flight catering interests beyond Hong Kong.
At Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), the company operates one of the largest and most modern flight kitchens in the world. Built in 1996 at a cost of US$200 million, at full utilisation the 50,400 square-metre facility is capable of producing 80,000 meals a day. It incorporates a bin conveyor system, vacuum waste disposal system, centralised dishwashing and chemical distribution systems, plus separate hot and cold kitchens as well as Halal, Kosher and Japanese kitchens and an on-site bakery.
CPCS supplies catering services to a wide range of airlines as well as in-house carriers Cathay and Dragonair at HKIA and also runs joint venture kitc
hen operations in Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vancouver and Toronto. In 2010, its total network supplied on average of 63,000 meals each day to 36 airlines operating 146 flights.
Special meal options offered by CPCS cater for customers with low calorie, low-carbohydrate and diabetic needs, as well as passengers demanding that food is prepared in line with their religion.
“Each CPCS in-flight kitchen around the world operates in line with the international in-flight catering food safety standards to ensure that all international airline requirements are met,” said a spokesperson for CPCS.
“These standards include random daily samplings of incoming raw products and scientific analysis of prepared food. Daily hygiene, cooking and storage temperature checks are made in all production and operation areas.”