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