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In the 1930s, passengers were given several meals served on real silverware. As flying become more common in the 1950s, the price to feed passengers increased, forcing airlines to cut back on food budgets, which affected the quality of food. Food quality continued to suffer for decades and with the current unpredictable economic climate, it’s been hard for airlines to bounce back from their poor food reputation.
“You flew an airline because of the great meal on it. And you knew you were going to get a great meal, but the ticket price reflected that,” explains Clifford Coles, current president of Clifford M. Coles Food Safety Consulting and former director of quality assurance for Del Monte. Coles held the position for 10 years at Del Monte, which had a division within the company that manufactured airline meals.
Safety overall is of course the highest priority of the airline industry. In 2016, the International Flight Services Association (IFSA) released its fourth edition of its World Food Safety Guidelines to assist the onboard industry in meeting and exceeding food safety standards. IFSA’s updated guidelines is no longer aimed solely at flight caterers but rather at both airlines and suppliers from production to passenger service. Most notable changes outlined in this version include a discussion of risk assessment, prerequisite programs in foods safety, and identifying CCPs.
“To ensure the safety of the food, we work with validated kitchens, all with HACCP implemented, who do a risk assessment from the vendors till the loading on board,” explains Zev Hernan Chernilo Muller, catering quality assurance manager for a South American airline for 14 years. “There is a strict temperature control along the chain that includes: receiving, storing, cooking, chilling, assembly, and dispatch.”
Safety and Quality Considerations
There are many considerations that go into ensuring the safety and quality of in-flight meals. One factor is that a catering facility’s location; it cannot be far from the airport, but airports are generally surrounded by industrial landscapes and wetlands—increasing the potential for pests, vermin, and other unwanted guests in the catering facilities. For example, one catering facility is documented as being a four-minute drive to an NYC airport, but is also down the street from a water pollution control plant.
Storage is another consideration. “Meals are stored in either galley carts or carriers with dry ice to keep food at a safe temperature for consumption,” says Michael Castro, senior analyst, onboard experience compliance for JetBlue, via email. “Our number one goal is to strike the perfect balance of food safety without losing the integrity of the meal itself for our customers to enjoy onboard.”
Budget is yet another major consideration. Coles points out that years ago when airlines had more of a monetary investment in meals, they unfortunately “realized that they were spending all this money, still getting a lot of complaints about meals, and at the same time not making any money on it.” It wasn’t a hard decision to slash the budget for airline meals, which can have an impact on overall quality.