Catering considerations when flying overseas

Keep your passengers and crew happy with healthy and tasty meals aloft.

By Grant McLaren

Manny Aviation Services' catering dept maintains kitchens throughout Mexico to support domestic and international catering needs for GA.

While engine failures, decompression events and emergency diversions are extreme rarities in today's bizav world, the same cannot be said for catering malfunctions, food poisoning and cuisine disappointments. These all happen on a regular basis, with the potential of ruining your passenger's or crew member's flight experience.

When a crew member experiences food poisoning at FL 470, this can cause serious schedule interruptions and/or delays with onward flight legs. But there are a host of less severe catering malfunctions that can lead to passenger distress, such as when an order arrives with full cream milk rather than the requested 1% milk, or there is a substituted brand of the requested yogurt, or there's insufficient ice replenishment.

On international missions, particularly those to remote regions, catering uplifts are always important considerations. While you'll face catering limitations of some degree at assorted international destinations, proper planning can do much to minimize food safety risks and appropriately manage passenger good food expectations.

"Catering quality varies dramatically from airport to airport, even in first world countries," says Avfuel Account Mgr David Kang. "At some locations, food safety may be a higher risk while at others you may have very limited options to choose from. Although it's rare for a catering order to not show up, it's not uncommon to experience wrong or missing items or to have catering turn up late."

International support providers (ISPs) and inflight caterers say it's best to put in catering orders at least 24 to 48 hours prior to departure. Have catering delivered to the aircraft 90 to 120 minutes before your departure and review all delivered items while there's still some time to coordinate a possible fix. Corporate Flight Attendant Training & Consulting CEO & President Susan Friedenberg says it's essential to go over every single detail of an order with your inflight caterer or restaurant/hotel to avoid last minute surprises and complications.

Problem potential

Inflight caterers suggest that best practices include considering ingredients that are fresh and in-season at particular international destinations, as well as available local cuisine specialties. If you order hot dogs or hamburgers at secondary airports in China, for example, taste and ingredients may be nothing close to what you're used to.

Kang recalls a case of a crew ordering boxed lunches overseas and being presented with a box containing bread slices, stacks of cold cuts and a jar of mustard. "Even the simplest items we tend to order stateside may not really exist in the rest of the world or they may not be understood or are not part of the local culture. While you may expect US-style food, it may not have US-style ingredients or taste."

Jeppesen Vendor Relations Mgr Jan Hanna recommends that crews consider local ingredients and local cuisine styles when overseas. "Don't expect everything to be the way it is at home. It's important for crew to manage passenger expectations, particularly when operating to smaller or remote international locations. We had passengers who wanted blackberries at a stop in SPN (Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands), something that's not available locally. The blackberries arrived but turned out to be moldy, as they'd been shipped from California some weeks prior and had been languishing in storage."

A particular ISP brings up the case of a corporate trip enroute to Asia uploading 5 large pizzas from a fast food supplier during a tech stop at OME (Nome AK). The pizzas were not the quality they'd wanted or expected but after takeoff it was too late to do something about it. It's important to keep in mind that just because something might be available it may not be what you want.

Dining aloft

Some cuisines can be more challenging than others at altitude. Cherries flambé, for example, is not recommended in airborne settings, certain cream-based sauces tend to experience separation issues, and all manner of cuisine has potential to taste differently aloft than they do on the ground. "Taste of food at altitude is impacted by decibel level in the cabin, cabin humidity and air circulation," explains Air Culinaire Sr VP Global Ops Steven Roberts. "Typical cabin noise levels of 80 to 85 dB have an effect on taste sensation, cabin humidity of 20% (vs 40 to 50% on the ground) impacts both taste and smell, and air circulation in the cabin evaporates aromatics in the air. Additional seasoning can also add to taste and aroma, with a positive impact on the food experience aloft."

Success with any international catering uplift is grounded in effective communication with the caterer and rigorous detailing of each order and delivery. "It's important to be very specific with each item ordered, to try to avoid any uncertainly," remarks Roberts. "With some flights to and from the Middle East, for example, we may spend 4 to 6 hours documenting catering requests before sending the order out for preparation."

Even something as seemingly simple as sourcing adequate ice supply needs to be carefully considered. Kang adds, "Ice and use of ice is often a uniquely US thing. In China or Eastern Europe ice may be in limited supply and operators may need to specifically order it as they would other catering or tech services. I've seen passengers survive on long international flight legs on chips and crackers and whatever else is onboard, but the whole experience can fall apart if they don't have enough ice for their drinks."

To avoid international ice dilemmas, Friedenberg sometimes recommends departing home base with a large quantity of ice, perhaps kept frozen in the hold with dry ice, just in case the ground handler overseas only has a couple of dozen ice cubes available or the local water source is not trustworthy.

Food safety

Food poisoning continues to be an issue affecting international bizav operations. Contamination can occur inflight, preflight or when crew are on overseas RON. "Food contamination risks can result from a single person not following proper hygiene, leading to flight diversion and/or significant delays," points out Friedenberg. "Gastrointestinal issues are the #1 reason crews call for medical support while inflight."

While it varies from person to person and depends on the particular germ or toxin, food poison symptoms generally show up about 2 to 4 hours after exposure, incapacitating crewmembers for some 4 to 6 hours. "Food contamination can be serious and follow-on effects could involve severe dehydration," says Medaire Global Medical Dir Dr Paulo Alves. "There are effective prescription and non-prescription remedies that can be taken but it's always important to confirm use with your medical provider as these remedies have possible side effects."


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