The pandemic has caused us all to make complicated decisions around travel. Airlines are no exception, especially when it comes to deciding what to do with things like in-flight meals. Too much food and drink, and people remain maskless; too little, and they get hungry and grouchy. Plus, cabin crew have to feel safe while serving it.
For some of the largest airlines, daily catering operations are massive undertakings, and were even before COVID-19. To get a closer look at how one airline handles feeding thousands of daily fliers, I traveled to Doha’s Hamad International Airport to explore what is considered to be the world’s largest airline catering facility under one roof, Qatar Airways Catering Company. With 16 hot kitchens, an in-house lab to test food safety, and a warehouse stocked with everything from sugar packets to toilet paper, Qatar Airways has in-flight service down to a science.
As someone fascinated with aviation, getting a behind-the-scenes peek at how one airline handles onboard food and drink was particularly exciting—but let’s be honest, if you’re preparing 200,000 meals a week, 24 hours a day, and mostly from scratch, it’s an impressive feat for anyone to behold. Wearing head-to-toe protective gear (including a hair net and covers for my shoes), I spent several hours investigating exactly how your airplane meal gets from the prep kitchen to your tray in under 24 hours.
It’s a farmer’s market of produce
The Qatar Airways’ catering facility uses as much fresh produce as possible. What the kitchen receives in the morning will be sliced, diced, baked, and served by the same evening. Each day, the facility uses more than 165,000 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables, going through 22,000 pounds of potatoes alone. The airline is the largest buyer of butter, eggplants, potatoes, and onions in all of Qatar. Each vegetable must be washed, sanitized, peeled, chopped, and sliced by hand.
Instead of canned products, the ingredients are all fresh, including for economy class meals. In fact, nearly 50,000 salads are prepared daily for economy passengers alone. The facility also uses nearly 22,000 pounds of chicken breast and 33,000 pounds of rice per day, and even makes its own fresh pasta on site.
Within the catering plant, there’s an intense focus on creating a pristine environment in the name of hygiene and food safety. For example, there are no cardboard boxes allowed inside the facility because they can carry contaminants or pests. Whatever comes boxed—including everything from bottled water and air freshener to carrots and lettuce—must be transferred into approved and pre-washed bins.
A chef-operated conveyor belt for omelets
No matter what the meal being prepared, portions are controlled carefully to assure that each tray or dish has the same amount. (You wouldn’t want to see your seat neighbor eating a bigger slice of cake than you, after all._ For economy meals, the staff pours food into the containers you see on your tray. Business-class meals are often placed in different containers that the crew heat up and plate on board for better presentation.
The airline’s catering facility produces an astonishing 66 different meal options just for economy class each day. This includes special meals like low-sodium, diabetic, and children’s options plus destination-specific dishes like curries bound for India, for a rough total of 4,000 special meals per day.