My visit to the airline catering factory at Prague airport

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I have been in a few aircraft hangars and maintenance facilities over the years.  What I had never done, until recently, was visit an airline catering facility.

After my visit to KLM’s engine maintenance facility, our group went to Prague to visit the dnata catering factory.  dnata is an Emirates-owned business and is the only caterer at Vaclav Havel Airport.  Unlike many caterers, it is inside the secure perimeter of the airport – this makes it easier to get food to aircraft but makes it harder to get staff and supplies into the factory.

Click on any image to enlarge slightly:

Prague airline catering facility dnata

The figures, even for a relatively small airport in global terms like Prague, are impressive:

4.8 millions meal produced per year

28,000 aircraft served per year

18 different airline customers

300 staff working 24/7/365

21 highloaders to load the aircraft (up to six are needed for some aircraft)

Prague airline catering facility dnata

These numbers appear to include customers where dnata is the ‘buy on board’ supplier, such as Ryanair.  Full service carriers include Air Canada, American, Delta, Qatar, Emirates, China Eastern, Hainan, Sichuan and Korean.

That said, it was lunchtime when we went round and there was surprisingly little going on!  First I had to wear my protective gear:

Most people don’t really think about the sheer scale of airport catering.  I’m not talking about the number of meals, but the variety.

Prague airline catering facility dnata

Let’s take a typical three class long-haul plane.  There will probably be two meals for each class during the flight, so six meal services need to be prepared.

Prague airline catering facility dnata

However, each meal has a number of options.  At the very least, there will be three main courses to pick from even if the starter and desert are set.  In Business you are likely to get alternatives for all three courses.  This means that, including side salads etc, there can be up to 60 different dishes required for a single flight.

And that’s just one flight.

Prague airline catering facility dnata

The daily Qatar Airways flight needs 60 dishes.  The daily Emirates flight needs 60 different dishes – but totally different to the Qatar Airways ones.  The same for Hainan, the same for Delta, the same for China Eastern etc etc.  Whilst your typical restaurant kitchen might make no more than 20 different dishes, even a small aircraft catering facility like this one is churning out literally hundreds of different plates each day.

Prague airline catering facility dnata

As the staff clearly can’t be expected to memorise them all, each dish is made to detailed guidelines.  Staff have no flexibility over how each dish is presented, how many carrots are included, the amount of rice per dish etc.  Everything is done to an exact specification.

Prague airline catering facility dnata

This level of details extends to the trolleys.  Every item must be placed in the same place on each trolley.  The Qatar Airways cabin crew need to know, should they need a lemon for a drink, that it will be in the exact same place on every flight, irrespective of which kitchen prepared the food globally.  Loading a two-level long-haul plane requires four highloaders to stock four galleys, and each trolley has a specified position.

Prague airline catering facility dnata

One area where dnata believes it is a leader is in flash freezing.  All hot meals are immediately deep frozen using liquid nitrogen.  By freezing them so quickly after cooking, the meals have a longer life once defrosted.

Prague airline catering facility dnata

As you can see here, the same facility is also used to load duty free, in-flight magazines, newspapers etc via the highloaders.

Prague airline catering facility dnata

Security is clearly tight, although being inside the airport perimeter makes it easier.  It was interesting to note that Delta and American insist that an outside security company comes in to oversee the loading of trolleys onto aircraft heading to the US.  All other airlines are happy to let dnata get on with it.

Prague airline catering facility dnata

It was a shame that the plant was so quiet when we went in – I was hoping to see long lines of workers putting together hundreds of meals on a vast production line, but it wasn’t to be.  It was still an experience to finally go around an airline caterer, and of course I got to wear a snazzy cap too …..

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  1. I thought they’d have a different department for BA, where they just grab whatever was disposed of by the other airliners.

    • Catalan says:

      Silly comment!

    • Lady London says:

      No, that’s for the British Airways lounges!

      • Hmm, some would say that that’s maybe a pretty fair comment! 🙂

        • Intentionally Blank says:

          I think it’s a fair comment: I’m in the delta lounge at SFO: just had a good coffee (yes, shock!), fresh fruit (banana, apple, melon and pineapple), porridge, scrambled egg on toast with this spicy beef mince, and there’s plenty of other options too. It really does make Galleries look like the old service air lounge in T1 at Heathrow. Am I being sensationalist? When you have to grab several of their bacon harms at Galleries to rip off all the uncooked fat off, just to make a half decent one, I’d say no.

        • Yup, I have to agree. IMHO the catering in the BA Galleries is, still, nothing much more than what I’d call, lowest denominator, mass feeding, “slop” catering, at best. 🙂

  2. OT is anyone having trouble withdrawing cash on curve? Card is working fine for purchases and I haven’t had a response from curve as tet

    • Steve-B says:

      I withdrew £200 yesterday, no problem.

    • Ken Middleton says:

      I have been drawing out £200 per month for quite a while now. Lately it has been in £50 instalments while I checked out cards for withdrawal charges. No problems on any transaction.

  3. Richard says:

    What a great article! Fascinating stuff

  4. Any samples?

  5. Very interesting piece Rob. When I was at university, back in the late 70’s, we had the boss of British Airways catering give a talk, which i still remember. That was when they did their own flight catering. It was interesting to,learn exactly how your taste senses change when flying and how they planned the food & wine offerings accordingly.

  6. David S says:

    Loving the new look Rob????
    Interesting arrticle.

  7. Haha this reminded me
    Was in Prague airport back in 2010. My flight was in Italy delayed then cancelled. Was given a voucher to buy food from the staff canteen. Was the most revolting selection I’ve ever seen

    Half boiled chicken lying in a tray with some 5 litres of oil

    Cabbage salad

    Still think about it years later

    • Flight was INITIALLY delayed then cancelled…

    • Harry in transit says:

      Not much better in terms of food offering where I’m sitting right now lol

      But decent coffee, cold drinks, comfy armchairs – & a computer each for my son @ me

  8. I remember a documentary about airline food from years ago where an airline and their caterer were discussing and tasting new meals.

    One of the airline people suggested adding an olive to the economy salad to pep it up a bit

    someone else then looks up some figure on a clip board and taps on a calculator and says “$400,000”.

    The olive was left off the salad!

    • I don’t know if it’s the same story, and not wanting to be pedantic on the costing, but I also remember the olive issue. It was, in fact, based on American Airlines catering back in the 1980’s, when cabin crew noted that nearly 75% of passengers would leave the olive on the dish when eating their salads. AA’s boss at the time decided to remove the olive. Apparently AA paid its caterers based on the number of ingredients in the salad and the single olive cost $40,000 a year.

      Ka-ching! 😉

  9. Voltron says:

    Did they have different sections for gluten free / kosher / halal meals etc?
    Or is all of those foods sent to them.

    • There is a separate halal area I saw. Not sure about the rest.

      • Where I work at LHR, kosher meals are sent to us already prepared and fully wrapped. GF and Halal are prepared on site separately.

        • Kosher food (ex UK) for all airlines (except LY) is catered for by Hermolis. Rob – I have contacts there, so if you’re interested in doing a visit, I could try to help arrange.
          They’re based off the North Circular near to Wembley.

          In terms of kosher meals more generally globally, these are not usually catered for by one of the general airline caterers (ie alongside regular food), but again are supplied by specialised (kosher) companies.

  10. The trollies themselves (on every airline) always look utterly filthy with the remains of years and years worth of part peeled stickers.

    • At this facility the insides were washed quite comprehensively between every use.
      Think the outside is a little more superficial, but they were high temperature cleaned.

  11. the_real_a says:

    Was there any discussion on the typical unit cost of a meal? I have always wondered what the economics looked like for catering.

    • Typically a economy meal would be around 1.5 to 2 euros for the full tray. Also on titbit I had experience of was that the Aberdeen Angus beef on the airline served in business case was just anyold beef, one way of pushing up the margins!

  12. Will Avery says:

    Anything on reducing waste/recycling?

  13. Great Halloween costume ????

  14. From an airlines point of view i can see why flogging M&S sandwiches instead of all the catering would be a good idea. Maybe one of the American airlines will follow suit and sell KFC or McDonalds.

    • US airlines have been doing this for way longer than BA.

      Not with fried junk food thank God, imagine the smell!

  15. Will have been in the late 90s so presumably (hopefully) things will have improved, but my brother briefly worked at a Heathrow catering facility… he swore off airplane food!

  16. Wildly off topic but I’m sure plenty of us are interested……

    Does anyone know how much a hotel is paid by IHG when a customer uses their points for a redemption ?

    • It is a nominal sum ($25 or so for a HI, going up to $100 or so for an IC) mainly designed to cover housekeeping, toiletries etc, except when the hotel hits 95% occupancy when the hotel gets full rate. The internal document was published on Flyertalk a few years ago. Talking to a Marriott person this week I can confirm it is very similar with a 95% trigger for full rate.

    • You can usually see how much IHG paid your hotel for your redemption in your points earning details in your account. It shows 0 points (as expected) but there is often an amount of money listed, sometimes it doesn’t come through though.

      IHG paid £150 to an IC for my free night; also redeemed at a UK motorway HIX and they only got £12 from IHG, but they were charging £65 to paying guests.

  17. Interesting article, how big were the hangers?

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