Regardless of who is responsible for placing catering orders in a business aviation flight operation – whether it’s a flight attendant or technician, a schedule/dispatcher, pilot or administrative assistant – it is attention to detail that determines the safety, satisfaction and overall cost of in-flight sustenance.
If it’s handled by a member of the crew, catering is usually the flight attendant’s responsibility. To avoid serving passengers a case of intestinal distress, they should acquire “Food Handling 101” knowledge and skills through a course presented by the local health department or training organization like DaVinci Inflight Training Institute, which specifically focuses on aviation.
Likewise, they should order from aviation caterers with the necessary health department and food handling certifications founded on the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point management system, a worldwide standard that addresses food safety through the analysis and control of biological, chemical and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product.
Cold Chain Security
Don’t confuse a restaurant or delivered food as catering, said Greg den Herder of Abby’s Catering in Houston. They work under different standards. “A restaurant cooks and serves the food hot. A caterer cooks, quickly chills the food to below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, and maintains that temperature until the food is delivered to the airplane.” Consequently, raw food such as sushi and sashimi is a universal risk.
Refrigerating delivered warm food not only breaks the cold chain, it changes the refrigerator’s temperature, which affects all of the other food in it, said Paula Kraft of Florida’s DaVinci Inflight Training Institute. The only way to reduce the risk of restaurant or delivery meals is to consume them on delivery. If these orders satisfy a passenger request, have a caterer acquire it so they can appropriately cool and package it for reheating later.
Maintaining the cold chain is an involved start to finish process, one reason why catering costs more than a restaurant meal, said den Herder, noting that installing a refrigerator unit can double the cost of a catering delivery van. Equally important to maintaining the security of the cold chain is the quality of an FBO’s refrigerators, which can be a waystation between the caterer’s delivery and stocking the galley.
Working from a caterer’s menu, the order should always be communicated by email. “This is especially important when ordering from international caterers whose principal language is not English,” said Martin Henschel of Carlos Catering in Germany. Even when English is a shared primary language, there are many vocabulary differences, said Pierre Rambroul of UpperSky Catering in Paris. “The order should be in basic English and, when needed, should define what is wanted. And the order should be placed directly with the aviation caterer with no intermediaries such as an FBO.”
“Caterers are not mind readers. Your order should include a phone number they can call with questions, and you should answer or return their calls immediately. If you don’t, they will make the decisions for you.”
Paula Kraft DaVinci Inflight Training Institute
Catering orders cannot be too specific, said Kraft. “Instead of just carrot sticks, I prefer an order that specifies 3-inch sticks cut on the diagonal and packaged in plastic bags with water. Caterers are not mind readers. Your order should include a phone number they can call with questions, and you should answer or return their calls immediately. If you don’t, they will make the decisions for you.”
“Give the caterer as much information as possible on the flight,” said den Herder. “Is it a special occasion, how many passengers will the order feed, are there any kids or pets on board? This enables us to make menu suggestions, such as kid friendly meals or pet treats, because we’re here to make you shine at 40,000 feet.”
The order should clearly identify the airport, FBO, and aircraft tail number as well at the time, date, and day of the week the order should be delivered. Using the 24-hour clock eliminates one point of confusion, but don’t confuse takeoff and delivery times, and double check the appropriate date, day, and time when traveling internationally. Ideally, the person making the order should accept the delivery to confirm its accuracy, and the delivery should arrive a couple of hours before departure to allow time for correcting problems.
Identifying the aircraft make and model, and how its galley is equipped is important, said den Herder, explaining that “ [Eighteen] people on a Gulfstream is not the same as 18 people on a Boeing BBJ 737.” Galley equipment determines how the food is packaged. Aluminum foil works in a convection oven, but not a microwave. “We often use CPET packaging that is good for convection ovens and microwaves.”
Caters can package orders in bulk by ingredient, with the flight attendant preparing and plating each meal, den Herder said. “We include preparation instructions and plating photos to guide them.” Orders can also be packaged as “individual meals served in CPET like a TV dinner.” It depends on the flight, the number of legs, and how the passengers come and go at every stop.
When traveling internationally, North Americans should “understand that food in general is very different,” said Rambroul. “Even a very basic U.S. recipe, brand, or raw ingredient is not something common or basic in the country where the order is being placed. The difference in metric and imperial measuring systems is another source of confusion, as are language and nomenclature differences. For example, seabass or European bass is also known as branzino,” said den Herder.
Customs requirements are different in every nation, so crews should research and understand them before ordering. Most require food to be pasteurized or incinerated after a specified time after landing, den Herder said. When international flights arrive, “many ask us to collect and clean the dirty dishes as part of our preparations for their return flight.” When flying to destinations not served by respected, reliable caters, depending on their time on the ground, flights can front load catering, with the return leg food packed in dry ice to preserve the cold chain.
“Play with open cards and let the caterer know what budget is being considered,” said Henschel. “This will save a lot of time and hassle on both sides.” Orders should always request a cost estimate, including all fees, said Henschel. This verifies “that the order was correctly received and understood by the caterer.”
Passenger serving size is the key to an economical catering order. “There are no industry standards for portion sizes, so ask the caterer,” said Kraft. A tray for five passengers may hold 30 cookies when 15 will do. Conversely, portion sizes are smaller in Europe, said Rambroul, and if the individual placing the order does not ask, the flight might run short. “Ordering food that is in season and not too exotic is the best practice. This is cost effective and easy to source.”
Ordering for food allergies and special diets have economic and lead-time impact because they usually require dedicated shopping expeditions and special preparation processes, Kraft said. “With food allergies, you cannot risk cross contact that will harm that person. If someone on the flight has a seafood allergy, you should not have it on the plane.”
With caterers around the world still struggling with COVID-19’s consequences for staffing and supply chains, said den Herder, placing an order that gives the caterer enough time to prepare it is crucial.