Challenges and tips for catering overseas
Dietary restrictions, ingredient availability and safety considerations complicate successful inflight food service.
By Grant McLaren
Well planned and inspired catering presentations can transform a routine international operation into a very satisfying and memorable experience for the principal passenger and associates.
Successful coordination of catering can be a challenge when operating in the international environment. To avoid disappointment, it's best to be proactive and make arrangements early. This is one element of international trip planning that, from the passenger perspective, has the potential to make or break a trip. "Catering is the one aspect of a flight that touches all 5 passenger senses," says Air Culinaire GM & Executive Chef Richard Peterson. "A catering malfunction can ruin your entire flight from the passenger's point of view."
Aviation catering involves many unique requirements—from sourcing difficult to find items to food safety and packaging issues and food preparation techniques at FL450. There are a range of passenger preferences, allergy and religion dietary considerations that must be kept in mind. Aviation catering can also be a very expensive proposition, says International Trip Planning Services (ITPS) COO Phil Linebaugh.
"Catering can be one of the bigger sticker shocks you'll encounter in the GA industry—with prices that can go through the roof, " he says. "I've seen invoices for $35 sandwiches, $30 cups of 4 shrimp and $100 per portion of steak that was nothing special and included nothing on the side.
We saw a $100,000 catering invoice for a flight from Saudi Arabia to Bangor (BGR). Due to US agriculture regulations all remaining onboard catering was dumped at BGR, $20,000 additional catering was boarded for the flight leg to Houston (IAH) and the aircraft landed at IAH with none of the new catering touched."
Worse than high pricing is when catering does not show up pre-departure. "When planning a trip to the other side of the world—or even a 4-5 hr leg—catering should never be an afterthought," says Linebaugh. "It needs to be part of your regular checklist." Not too long ago a Gulfstream V departed RTM (Rotterdam, Netherlands) for the US with no catering. "The crew left the catering order to be a last minute item for an early Sunday morning departure. No catering kitchens were open. The flight departed without catering onboard and the passengers were not happy!"
Consider all options
It's important to consider all possible catering related issues—sources of supply, packaging, food safety and methods of delivering catering to your aircraft—at overseas locations. Not all airports have inflight caterers. You may need to consider alternatives such as hotels, restaurants or buying ingredients at a local market and having flight attendants prepare cuisine from scratch.
"At some locations, such as the outer islands in the Bahamas you may have very few catering options," says Jeppesen Intl Vendor Relations Mgr Asia & Australasia Jan Hanna. "You need to be careful in terms of who's providing the food, how it's prepared, stored and delivered to the aircraft. You don't want ingredients that have been sitting on the shelves for awhile, catering delivered in packaging not appropriate for your galley or catering that's not delivered sufficiently cool to be out of the food safety danger zone."
Consider backup options, including keeping a stock of shelf-stable foods onboard in the event a planned catering order does not materialize or your schedule changes last minute. This can be particularly important when passengers have specific dietary requirements. In some cases you may be able to pre-board catering for the next leg or for the return trip.
Keep in mind, however, that some locations (such as Australia and the Hawaiian Islands) routinely dispose of all onboard food immediately on landing. There may also be issues, particularly at smaller locations, with safe food storage during international stops.
"If you plan to take catering for subsequent legs of a trip be sure to check on local agricultural rules at your destinations and have food sealed and packaged appropriately," says Peterson. "You'll also want to confirm that local handlers have facilities and refrigeration available to safely store non shelf-stable onboard catering."
Air Culinaire GM and Exec Chef Richard Peterson recently orchestrated catering for a round-the-world VIP configured Airbus A319.
When traveling to smaller or more remote locations—perhaps a smaller Caribbean island or a secondary airport in northern Nigeria—provide at least 48 hrs advance notice and be somewhat flexible in catering requests.
Specific brands of beverages may be hard or impossible to source locally and selections of available produce and proteins may be limited. Smaller Caribbean islands, for example, may have wonderful lobster and seafood available but very limited prime beef options.
In very remote locations refrigeration may be an issue. "Delivery trucks may not be refrigerated and your catering may be traveling a long distance," says Hanna. "Don't take chances with food safety. Have your handler coordinate dry ice and/or refrigeration for the transport and storage at the airport."
If your flight attendants plan to prepare cuisine from scratch on-site check if there are well-stocked grocery stores in the area and if the ground handler has kitchen facilities and refrigeration available.
Be aware of local religious restrictions as these can also affect availability of catering ingredients. In India, for example, don't expect to be able to order beef or beef burgers. In Muslim countries you're not likely to get pork, bacon or bird of prey meat with catering orders. It's important to be aware of passenger religious and dietary restrictions—such as halal and kosher foods and nut or gluten-free ingredients.
If you're ordering special foods for religious or dietary reasons be sure that the caterer clearly labels and indicates this on the packaging. Bear in mind, also, that at many locations when you land all onboard non shelf-stable food will be disposed of as international waste. You may need to re-source special, or specific, food items all over again at the first destination.
Some passengers always prefer certain foods and may be very brand orientated. "This is where catering uplifts can become problematic at certain locations with limited availability of specific items," says Jeppesen Intl Business Consultant Client Solutions Nancy Pierce. "There are passengers who've had meltdowns because the milk was not the right fat percentage.
Even though the handler may drive all over an island trying to find specific items, some catering requests may be all but impossible to fulfill." Don't assume that because something is common in North America or Europe that it can be had on short notice anywhere. "Recently in Mexico a crew ordered a tray of bagels at the passenger's request," says Pierce. "The problem was that the handler had no idea what a bagel was or how to find it."
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