As soon as passengers have settled in the airplane and the flight takes off, there is a lot of anticipation of on board meal. What is on the menu today? Is there gluten free meal available or not? Do they have vegetarian meal or not?

However, there are many intriguing questions for people interested in knowing how catering works. In this post, we will explore airline catering facilities and aircraft catering equipment to explain how the whole flight catering system works.

Scope of Aircraft Catering

In order to understand the importance of airline catering, please note that there can be more than 150 passengers on a small aircraft like Airbus A320. On a larger aircraft like Boeing 777, there can be more than 300 passengers on board.

An Airbus A380 can have more than 500 passengers on board. These airliners can easily have long haul flights of more than 15 hours flight time. An airline needs to provide meals and snacks to all passengers and crew remaining onboard for extended periods of time.

To further compound the situation, busy airports around the world have hundreds of flights per day and preparation, packaging and management of meals and catering supplies becomes a big challenge airlines.

Apart from the primary objective of serving in-flight meals, the same catering facility can be used for serving airport lounges and airline staff offices.

According to Business Insider April 2019 Report on Emirates Flight Kitchen in Dubai, it is the world’s largest catering facility that prepares around 225,000 flight meals a day and 110,000,000 flight meals a year. It receives 3,000,000 pieces of tableware a day for washing and packaging.

Emirates has 1,800 chefs working around the globe who develop more than 1,300 menus a month for different flight routes and destinations. Generally, menu of each flight is inspired by cuisines and culinary style of the arriving destination.

Meal package on Australian Airlines.
(Image Credit Wikimedia Commons/Australian Airlines)

Flight Kitchen (or Flight Catering Facility)

Meals served on the aircraft by the airline are not prepared on board. There is a facility dedicated for preparation of flight meals called Flight Kitchen that is located at the airport or its vicinity.

Flight kitchen is simply a large facility for mass preparation of flight meals. It has a team of chefs and catering staff working 24/7 in shifts preparing meals for their airline.

For example, the Emirates Catering Facility referred above is a multiple story facility with different sections assigned for different jobs such as dish washing, servicing of meal trolleys, preparation of appetizers, preparation of deserts and a separate cooking and meal preparation section for Asian, Subcontinent, European and Middle Eastern food respectively.

Large flight kitchens can have considerable automation involved including conveyor belts for controlling pace of meal packaging across different sections of a flight kitchen; automated plastic wrapping of meal packages; automated washing equipment for catering cutlery and accessories; automatic rail system for traveling of meal trolleys through different servicing sections.

Flight kitchens don’t give a kitchen vibe at all if you neglect the appetizing aroma of different meals being prepared. They rather give the impression of a factory or facility that is not cooking food but manufacturing it in a production line fashion.

Logistics is the backbone of Flight Catering process and Flight Catering Facilities have large fleets of Aircraft Catering Trucks that are basically height loaders of different specifications compatible with different aircraft types (we’ll discuss the design of aircraft catering truck in more detail shortly).

For example, the same Emirates Catering Facility in Dubai we discussed earlier has a transport fleet of 424 vehicles including 295 height-loader trucks and 89 specialized height-loader trucks to service the largest aircraft i.e. Airbus A380.

Flight Kitchen of Kastrup Airport, Copenhagen, Denmark
(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/SAS Scandinavian Airlines)

The importance of hygiene and safety in Flight Catering Facility is of paramount importance. Flight kitchens can have Food Analysis Laboratories on site to conduct different tests important for compliance with food standards.

Owing to the technology and automation involved, Flight Catering Facilities can have in-house maintenance workshops and team of engineers and technicians for maintenance of equipment.

Flight Catering Process

The complete catering process of airlines consists of several main steps as given below,

1. Flight kitchen receives order of the meals to be served onboard for forthcoming flights. The order is based on a meal plan already prepared in advance for the different flights operating at any given day.

2. Kitchen staff checks the different meals requested on the menu and prepares a plan for preparing the meals in advance.

3. Kitchen staff cooks the meals and make portions of the meal ready to be served to passengers and crew.

4. This cooked food is generally not sent straight away to the airplane. It is first cooled down at a storage temperature.

5. The meals that are now in the form of packages are loaded on meal trolleys. Several fully loaded meal trolleys become ready to be transferred to the aircraft and are sent to flight kitchen loading bays.

6. The flight kitchen loading bay is a place like any other logistics facility loading area where a designated gate is assigned for parking a truck with its rear bumper aligned with the bay gate so that from the facility’s side, it appears as if things are being transferred from the facility to a room. All meal trolleys are loaded up into the Aircraft Catering Truck.

7. At this point, the meal trolleys leave the Flight Kitchen and the Aircraft Catering Truck travels to reach the aircraft stand where the respective aircraft is parked. There are several security checkpoints the truck goes through before it finally reaches the aircraft.

8. New meal trolleys cannot be loaded on the aircraft until the existing meal trolleys whose meal packages have been consumed on flight are removed. Therefore, at the time when Flight Kitchen is loading up the new truck, another truck that reaches the aircraft as soon as it arrives lines up with the aircraft so that crew could unload all of the existing meal trolleys from the aircraft onto the Aircraft Catering Truck.

9. It is the responsibility of Ramp Supervisor and airline crew to make sure that the unloading of old catering supplies and meal trolleys is finished by the time the freshly loaded Aircraft Catering Truck reaches the aircraft stand. It requires coordination between ground staff, crew onboard and flight kitchen.

10. Once all of the existing catering supplies (mainly used up meal trolleys) have been loaded up on the truck, it leaves allowing the freshly loaded truck to engage with the aircraft.

11. At this stage, airline crew gets busy transferring all of the meal trolleys from inside the truck to the aircraft. After all meal trolleys have been transferred into the aircraft, the catering truck is disengaged and removed from the aircraft. This same catering truck that brought freshly loaded meal trolleys remains on apron. It is used for unloading consumed meal trolleys from the next flight of the airline.

12. Meanwhile, the Aircraft Catering Truck that had picked the old meal trolleys returns to the Flight Kitchen where all meal trolleys are unloaded. All contents of the meal trolleys are emptied and washed including servicing of the meal trolleys themselves. Once fully serviced and cleaned, these meal trolleys with their cutlery and accessories are used for packing meals for future flights. Similarly, the truck that had brought the used up meal trolleys is sent to the apron fully loaded with freshly loaded meal trolleys for the next flight. In this way, a single truck is used both for carrying fresh supplies to the aircraft as well as retrieving consumed meal trolleys.

In this way, the fleet of Aircraft Catering Trucks keep moving back and forth between apron and flight kitchen to replenish flights catering supplies.

Flight catering process mainly consists of a fleet of aircraft catering trucks moving back & forth between flight kitchen and aircraft.

Engineering Design of Aircraft Catering Truck

Meals are prepared and dispatched from the flight kitchen for each flight individually. When an aircraft lands and after passengers have deplaned the airplane, its catering supplies have to be replenished for the next flight. The ground support equipment responsible for replenishment of catering supplies the aircraft catering truck.

An Aircraft Catering Truck with container raised and adjusted with aircraft door.
(Source Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Renata3)

A catering truck stores meals in meal trolleys inside its container. It has a scissor lift elevation system to raise the container to the level of aircraft door and make a safe bridge connection through an adjustable platform to allow the staff to replace meal trolleys. It has has stabilizers to make sure the catering truck does not sway under wind pressure or staff movement once engaged with the aircraft.

Catering supplies are replenished by replacing food trolleys and not just meal packages. Flight kitchen loads up meal packages in food trolleys that are loaded in the catering truck. When catering truck is connected with the aircraft, airline staff loads the aircraft with fresh trolleys and empty trolleys are loaded back into the catering truck.

After catering truck is done with the aircraft, it goes back to the flight kitchen where all retrieved trolleys are unloaded and flight kitchen staff clean and service these trolleys to make them ready for the next flight.

Safety Features in Modern Aircraft Catering Trucks

Apart from the basic parts described above, modern aircraft catering trucks also have safety interlocks and sensors to prevent accidents due to human error. These interlocks and sensors include features such as,

  • Driving Interlock when the stabilizers are engaged i.e. truck’s control system will not allow driver to drive the truck when stabilizers are engaged. This feature will make sure that if the driver mistakenly tries to drive the truck while the stabilizers are active, control system won’t allow it.
  • Stabilizers Retraction Interlock i.e. stabilizers will not retract if the container is in an elevated position. This feature will make sure that if driver mistakenly presses the stabilizers retraction button while its container is elevated, stabilizers don’t retract because it can cause a sudden instability.
  • Safety Shoe Sensor is an interesting one. An aircraft’s height does not remain constant when it is on ground. When fuel is added and cargo is loaded, its height reduces due to added weight. The problem is how would catering truck know if the height of the aircraft has changed from what it was when catering truck was parked? This problem is solved by safety shoe sensor. It senses change in aircraft height and alerts staff if something is wrong.
  • Safety Shoe Sensor is placed under aircraft door. If aircraft height drops, door presses the safety shoe and safety shoe sends alarm signal to control system.
A safety shoe is a sensor that is placed underneath the aircraft door to sense if the height of catering truck and the height of aircraft change significantly, aircraft door will press the safety shoe and an alarm will be activated.

Aircraft Catering Truck Models & Configurations

Different aircraft catering trucks have different service heights, container sizes and payload rating based on the largest aircraft they are designed to service.

For example, an aircraft catering truck designed to service smaller aircraft like an Airbus A320 will have a smaller container size, payload capacity and service height than a catering truck designed for servicing an Airbus A380.

Aircraft catering truck manufacturers manufacture many different variants for airlines and ground handling agencies to select from based on the aircraft fleet they operate.

An Airbus A380 being serviced by multiple catering trucks. Notice that the catering truck for its upper deck has a greater service height as well as larger container size.
(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Antoine FLEURY-GOBERT)

Innovation & Automation in Aircraft Catering Truck Technology

Aircraft Catering Truck manufacturing companies are bringing new innovations to catering truck technology to increase safety and efficiency of aircraft catering truck operation.

For example, Mercedes Benz Econic Catering Truck comes with 360 deg. camera coverage that allow the driver to view everything around the truck and eliminate risk of accidents due to blind spot. It also has radar sensors installed on truck sides that alert the driver if it is getting close to any person or any other ground support equipment on the apron.

Mercedes Benz Econic Catering Truck Safety Systems Overview

Another example is the automated trolley movement system in catering truck containers by manufacturer ATL Systems. The container is fitted with an automated trolley conveying system that automatically brings new trolleys forward towards the aircraft door. It reduces loading and unloading time by eliminating the need of airline staff manually organizing food trolleys inside catering truck container.

Automated Catering Truck Containers by ATL Systems

So this is it from our side. If you liked our article, please do share it with like minded people in your circle so that our effort reaches at more and more placed where it is helpful.

If you are interested in obtaining a base level knowledge about all the different types of aircraft ground support equipment and operations,  Check out this 3 Hour video based course on Udemy that explains each of nearly 20 different aircraft ground support activities and equipment.