A Day in the Life of an Airline Meal

We've all heard complaints about the airline food served in coach; occasionally these complaints are even funny.

And last month a USA Today story reported unsanitary conditions at some major airline caterers. So what are we to think about those meals that arrive all neatly wrapped in aluminum foil? Are they just hastily thrown together to ease the hunger of passengers who can't afford business or first-class fares?

To find answers to these questions, AOL decided to track a single airline meal, from the time it is planned and placed on an airline's menu to the moment it arrives at the passenger's seat. Here's what we found....

6 p.m. The passenger confirms her seat assignment – 31A – for tomorrow's flight from Chicago to London. She doesn't know it, but her meal choice is getting ready for takeoff, too.

She's going to select grilled chicken breast with orange sesame ginger sauce, served with jasmine white rice and a side of broccoli and carrots. It's taken a year of development for this dish to make it to the United menu, with three teams of 35 people considering menu items, procuring ingredients, testing and tasting food, and monitoring the quality of the product to the passenger. It's a highly choreographed event from start to finish.

"We did a lot of work with the ginger sauce," says United Executive Chef Gerry Gulli, who's been with the company for 25 years. "You're eating with your eyes when you first get it, and not only is this dish attractive, it's very flavorful."

Midnight. Dishes for United's Flight 958, which departs in 18 hours, are getting washed at Gate Gourmet catering, right on O'Hare property. In a green effort to conserve resources and reduce waste, United doesn't have a lot of disposable products, according toStuart Benzal, United's managing director of onboard global product. Instead, bowls, plates, cups and other utensils are hauled off the aircraft after each flight and sent to one of the 52 kitchens that United uses around the world.

Most kitchens operate 24 hours. "After 10 at night, it goes into equipment processing (mode)" says Benzal, which means cleaning hundreds of plates, bowls, cups, saucers, trays and utensils for the next day.

2 a.m. By now, the passenger in seat 31A sleeps soundly, her bags packed for tomorrow's flight. While she's sleeping, wheels are in motion to get her chicken dinner ready.

Alison Hough, director of product planning, planned and ordered chicken for this meal months ago. She knows, based on customer preferences and numbers, how many chickens to order and send to the caterers. Her team ensures that there is fresh, quality product for all the major components of the meal, while smaller detail items like seasonings are covered by the catering kitchen.

5:30 a.m. Chef Danielle Nahal and her team of eight to 12 cooks and food handlers, arrive at Gate Gourmet to begin the day's preparations. The kitchen will be making lots of meals today for flights to London, Asia, Amsterdam and Paris, so the prep work covers 250-300 servings of each entrée. Though the kitchen is very large, it is also very busy and crowded. Nearly 300 people work on a shift, and the kitchen runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It's very cold in the kitchens to ensure food safety and food integrity. "You can't just walk into a kitchen," Benzal says. "You fill out a health form, go to a wash station and wash your hands, use disinfectant, wear a lab coat; your hair and head are covered. There's even a face mask," he says. "You look more like a surgeon than someone preparing to chop salads." This chilled environment is maintained throughout the production.

6.00 a.m. Twelve hours before flight time, United delivers the final counts and order for meals, including the chicken with orange sesame glaze. Gate Gourmet accepts the order and begins processing to the count specifications. "We're producing in very large batches," says Chef Nahal. "Sauces are made by the gallon. Vegetables are done by the pound – about 500 pounds [for one day's meal preparation]."

Executive Chef Gerry Gulli started testing the flavors and sauces for his mandarin chicken nearly a year ago. Since United likes to change out the menus every three months, and needs to have at least two economy meal choices per flight, Chef Gulli is a busy guy. The chefs must also adjust recipes for the diminished taste buds people experience while in flight. "We compensate for that with cooking techniques, using bold flavors and marinades," says Chef Nahal.

United gets about 3,000 comments on meals per month, says Benzal. "We do read all of them. Product managers review them for menu improvements." The majority of United customers have an "American contemporary" preference, with a focus on healthy food that is light on sauces and coverings.

To meet that expectation, United tests new menu items in its Red Carpet Club, and sometimes invites patrons to a special tasting event with one of their marquee chefs. A few lucky fliers joined Chef Charlie Trotter at his restaurant this year, where ingredients were presented and diners asked to help create a great airline meal.

In addition to Executive Chef Gulli and the marquee chefs, two chefs from the major catering firms also help in designing menu selections. "Chefs comes up with five to seven entrées with chicken, and a table of 35-40 meals that make the first cut," Benzal says. Then, it's on to focus group testing and a final meal selection.

When the item is selected, Allison Hough's procurement team creates an ingredient list for the recipe, a shopping list of items the catering kitchen will need.

9:00 a.m. The grilled chicken breast with orange sesame ginger glaze is being prepared according to recipe instructions. Color photos guide the preparers, so they know exactly how the plate should appear before it arrives at seat 31A. Glazes are measured and blended, the chicken grilled and covered, and broccoli steamed and arranged. Chefs work at different stations, so four to five people may be working on the mandarin chicken meal at any given time.

11.00 a.m. The plated meal for the passenger in 31A, along with nearly 250 other entrées, gets loaded onto trays. Trays are inserted into trolleys, where they sit in a blast chiller until called for delivery to the aircraft.

1:00 p.m. Seat 31A passenger locks her front door and jumps into a cab for the airport. She wants to allow plenty of time to clear security, as well as time to relax in the airport lounge. Traffic's backed up on the way to O'Hare, so she's happy she left a little early.

Catering service trolley drivers return from lunch and get ready to load trays onto their trucks for afternoon flights. These trucks are also chilled, keeping the food cold for the short trip from kitchen to aircraft. The drivers will take about an hour for the loading, counting and sealing of trucks.

2:30 p.m. The truck for Flight 958 delivers the meals for the flight, including the chicken with orange sesame glaze destined for seat 31A today. Each high-loader truck takes a trolley of trays, and the driver puts them onto the aircraft. The meals fit into a refrigerated compartment. It will take the driver about 30 minutes to get to the aircraft, then another 45 minutes to an hour to load the meals onto the plane.

4:00 p.m. The truck drivers complete the loading, as they must be off the aircraft at least an hour before passengers begin boarding. Passenger 31A puts down her newspaper, gathers up her purse and backpack, and lines up to board the plane.

6:00 p.m. Flight 958 takes off, bound for London. Flight attendants take economy class meal orders from the three selections: mandarin chicken, a pasta dish, and a beef meal. The passenger in seat 31A chooses the chicken with orange sesame sauce.

7:00 p.m. Flight attendants are busy heating the fully cooked but cold meals in a convection oven. The convection oven circulates the hot air and ensures meals are heated evenly and at the same temperature. It takes about 20 minutes to bring them to dining temperature, and then they are loaded onto carts to head down the aisle.

A secret that Chef Gulli offers about keeping the rice moist: He adds a blanched cabbage leaf on top of the rice, which is removed just before serving.

Flight attendants are also following full color photos of the dishes and instructions from the Chef. "Any time there's new food, we make sure the flight attendants can execute it properly," says Chef Gulli. "We spend upwards of $500 million a year on onboard service." (United would not provide a per meal cost for the mandarin chicken dish, stating that contracts with suppliers were too complicated to parse out single dish costs.)

8:00 p.m. The orange chicken with sesame ginger glaze arrives at seat 31A, hot, colorful, and prepared to Chef Gulli's specifications. It's just another day in the life of an airline meal – but a full year in the making.

Still Hungry? Check out our list of the World's 10 Most Outrageous Restaurants.
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