How to Choose the Best In-Flight Catering Options Based on the Length of Your Flight
This aviation blog post is part of a series on in-flight catering for business aircraft operators.
In-flight catering is an important ingredient in the success of any flight. If passengers are happy with catering, they’ll view the overall flight experience more positively. While there are many factors to consider when making in-flight catering arrangements, an important one is length of flight. Here are some tips for choosing the best in-flight catering options based on the length of your flight.
1. Consider the region and purpose of flight
Time of day, length of flight, and purpose of trip will often impact in-flight catering requests. On short flights to business meetings, for example, you may want to avoid heavy carbohydrate dishes such as pastas, as this could impact passenger energy levels. We’re seeing more regional ‘comfort food,’ such as lobster rolls or pirogues being ordered, as well as a trend toward healthier, lighter food options. On longer international legs there are trends toward Asian- and Thai-influenced cuisine, along with Mediterranean and Indian flair foods. There’s also a move within many flight departments toward more steamed foods, grilled vegetables, and healthier options.
2. Consider onboard prep time
On shorter midday flights, we’re seeing more ‘sampler platters’ – perhaps fruit, cheese, grilled vegetables, and shrimp, involving less effort to prepare and present. Certain foods are not recommended due to the in-flight environment and reheating challenges. Soufflés are typically avoided, as well as fried foods, as they don’t reheat well. Avoid fresh egg products and both cream- and butter-based sauces, which may separate if not served immediately. Overcooked eggs or eggs that touch uncoated aluminum while being reheated can turn green. This can be avoided by using pasteurized eggs. Heavy starch dishes, such as pastas, can be difficult to reheat successfully and induce sleepiness. Pizza can be challenging to reheat if you have more than a few passengers onboard. In contrast, sushi stays fresh for hours when properly cooled, steamed dumplings (Dim Sum) can reheat well, and fresh berries are always a good choice for breakfast as they provide high energy without causing fatigue.
3. Choose the best food packaging option
On longer flights, entrées are often prepared and packaged in bulk for reheating and serving later. Options differ depending on length of flight, time of day, number of passengers, and onboard flight attendant resources. Choosing a protein entrée with salad and light dessert can be a good choice on shorter flights. On longer missions, popular options include a selection of ‘teaser samplers’ just after departure, followed by pre-plated appetizers, bulk packaged entrées, and self-service snack foods between meals.
4. Understand food safety and different temperature requirements
In-flight catering should be delivered to the aircraft chilled at 40 degrees F (4.4 degrees C.) or below or hot at 140 degrees F (60 degrees C.) and above. The exception is if you require hot “ready to eat” meals for a very short flight, at which point the in-flight caterer may ask you to sign a food safety waiver. If you have insufficient reheating capability on your aircraft, consider reheating the chilled catering at your fixed base operator immediately prior to departure. There can be inherent risks in ordering from restaurants as packaging may not be conducive for reheating and food may not be delivered properly chilled. Ice gel packs work well for most catering (place gel packs above and beneath catering for best cooling), and dry ice is effective for longer storage of catering, but be careful not to freeze your catering by using small portions of dry ice. There are options to consider in pre-ordering catering for down line legs. Catering may be stored in the cargo area for second and third legs and kept cool for up to 24 hours with dry ice. As a general rule, for five pounds of food, you should use seven pounds of dry ice.
5. Consider the time of day
When planning in-flight catering for a flight of one hour or less, consider having pre-plated catering delivered and served prior to wheels up. For morning flights, bagels, fruit parfaits, and fresh fruit are popular and healthy options. On shorter afternoon flights, it’s often best to avoid reheating items. Consider light snacks, seafood trays, and pre-plated protein salads. For late afternoon or early evening, a light soup or salad, a protein with vegetables, and dessert can be prepared quickly. Flights of six hours or more are suitable for full service multi-course catering, but consider the type of flight (business, leisure or family) and both galley and flight attendant resources.
6. Select full service in-flight catering options for longer flights
On longer flights you may want to offer two or three meal services with snack options in between. Menus can be printed by the in-flight caterer on request, complete with your company logo. It’s best practice to order additional entrées in case a passenger wants more options or servings, or if an item is damaged or overcooked. In the case of dishes such as scrambled eggs or omelets, a flight attendant may prefer to cook onboard, but this is not the norm due to limited galley capabilities. Consider portion size based on passenger requirements. Protein portions for Europe are closer to 6 oz., while U.S. portions are typically 8-10 oz. Always have non-perishable food supplies such as protein bars, rice, and canned soups available in the event an in-flight catering order is not delivered at destination.
7. Provide passengers with as many options as possible
You’ll want the best options in terms of catering variety and convenience. Serving a three-course meal to four passengers on a two-hour flight can be challenging. Consider pre-plated options and easy to reheat entrees such as a salad with hot protein to improve success of multi-course meals on shorter flight legs.
8. Work with your 3rd-party provider on catering tips
There are more catering options today than ever before, and many passengers are looking for healthy choices and new food experiences. Understand passenger requirements, as well as any food allergies and dietary restrictions like Kosher and Halal, provide a variety of options, and have alternate plans just in case anything goes wrong. Be aware of weekend and holiday periods worldwide as more notice may be required for in-flight catering requests. Also, ask your in-flight caterer for recommendations and freshest local ingredient options. When possible, try to get to know your regular in-flight caterers on a personal level, especially if you plan to fly to a particular region on a regular basis.
Orchestrating successful catering does not have to be an overly complex or stressful experience. Consider options based on time of day, length of flight and passenger preferences, and work with your in-flight caterer to conjure up the most rewarding options.
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