Catering to the Industry’s Needs

Richard Maslen and Tom Allett spoke to LSG Sky-Chefs and discovered how the company provides more than 405 million in-flight meals a year for 300 plus airlines.
The in-flight services business has come a long way since the dawn of commercial aviation, but the whole concept was still in its infancy when American Airlines invested around $500,000 in forming, Sky Chefs, its own dedicated catering service, in 1942.  It is true that Zeppelin passengers had been provided with in-flight services from as early as 1914 and aircraft were later fitted with special dining rooms from the 1920s, but for small, fixed-wing airliners the onboard service was limited.  KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was believed to be one of the initial airlines to provide pre-packed meals to its customers from late August 1919 and is said to be among the first to install a galley on one of its aircraft.  This wooden cupboard containing liquor and glasses on a Fokker F2 aircraft was reported to have fallen on a passenger just 15 minutes after departure as the vibration of the aircraft worked the screws holding it to the fuselage loose.
Imperial Airways also provided its passengers with sandwiches during the 1920s, but it is Paris-based Air Union that is widely recognised as the first to provide a full in-flight catering service to customers.  From July 30, 1927, they employed stewards on board to serve lobster salad, cold chicken and ham, nicoise salad, ice cream and fruit, but the service was discontinued in June 1929.
Others soon followed the French carrier’s lead.  Lufthansa provided the first hot meal service on April 29, 1928 when its ‘Flying Dining Car’ concept was introduced on its B-31 aircraft between Berlin and Paris.  The Marriott group contract caterers began to serve food from one of its ‘Hot Shoppes’ to passenger queuing for flights at an adjacent airport from 1933, while in 1934 Dobbs International Services was founded in Memphis, USA.  In time the company established the first independent kitchen, providing food for Delta Air Lines at Atlanta as the in-flight catering industry began to develop following the arrival of larger airliners and the proliferation of intercontinental travel.
 
Background
LSG Sky Chefs may not have been formed until 1993, but it can trace its history back to the 1942 formation of Sky Chefs.  This company was separated from the airline in 1986 when it was acquired by its senior management in partnership with Canadian company Onex Food Service and in 1993 was merged with LSG Lufthansa Service, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lufthansa that had been formed 30 years earlier.  Initially a domestic caterer, the German company had expanded into the Asian, European and US markets between 1989 and 1992 through the formation of joint ventures with local partners.  LSG Lufthansa Service initially held just a minority stake in Sky Chefs, but by 1999 it had increased its ownership to 48%; eventually take full control of the business in 2001.
By that time it had been re-branded as LSG Sky Chefs and had embarked on a major international expansion opening airline catering facilities across Europe and the US and new markets in Latin America, Africa and Asia.  LSG is now recognised as the world’s largest provider of in-flight services with some 200 sites across 50 countries and annual revenues of €2.1 million (in 2009).
 
Market demands
The aviation sector is one of the fastest expanding industries in the business world and during two and a half decades of operation LSG have had significant changes in customer demand.  In the past airlines would be happy to offer very elaborate multi-course meals for its exclusive First and Business Class travellers, but with growing economic pressures costs are now being cut to the bone and catering has been one specific area that has seen huge cut-backs.  Menus are being simplified while tenders for new contracts are becoming more competitive, forcing the price down – great for the airlines but not for the catering sector.  And, with cost of goods such as fresh fruit and vegetables increasing, caterers such as LSG are faced with paying more for their produce but receiving less from its customers.  The arrival of budget airlines with a pay-onboard service has also forced the industry to adapt its product offering, away for traditional meals to pre-packaged sandwiches.
This led to the company essentially broadening its product portfolio back in 2009.  It is now far more than simply an in-flight catering service, providing equipment and logistics as well as meals and using its expertise in the sector to manage the in-flight supply chain for airlines around the world.
 
The daily routine
When we travel we tend to take for granted the availability of food or drink onboard, whether in the lavish splendour of a First Class cabin enjoying champagne and lobster or purchasing a BLT sandwich and a bottle of water on a budget airline service.  For the end user, in-flight catering is a behind-the-scenes activity.  Annette Jenkinson became LSG’s Vice President of UK Operations in October 2010 having previously served as its General Manager since August 2007.  She told Airports International that the key to providing quality in-flight catering is simply: “a matter of perfecting logistics”, but it is not until you look inside the company’s two giant catering facilities at London Heathrow, that you understand the complexities of how more than 30,000 individual meal orders are produced there every day, and how modern technology has simplified this process.
One of the London facilities deals with purely Halal food, with the second building handling other types.  LSG’s total Heathrow workforce is about 800 strong and a mixture of the company’s own permanent employees and agency staff.  The manning levels vary in line with seasonal demands.
Though Heathrow has a strict night flight curfew, which means that normally there are no departures allowed out between midnight and 6am, LSG’s activities are still very much a 24/7, 365-day operation.  Even by first light on summer mornings the workforce has already begun preparations for the day’s orders.  Pre-production staff work in air-conditioned rooms providing food for their colleagues in the cold and warm kitchens.  Tomatoes are sliced, quartered or pureed according to specifications; a wide variety of sausage and cheese is sliced with precision down to the last gram in automated cutting machines; fresh salad is washed and stored in giant stainless steel tubs ready for application; while the ingredients for a chocolate mousse are blended together by a giant whisk as if guided by an invisible hand.
Shortly after, in the equipment cleaning department, the incoming dishes from the early morning flight arrivals are being divided between porcelain, glass and cutlery and washed ahead of their redistribution for their next flights.
Towards 6am the building is at its busiest as perishable deliveries turn up.  Supplies arrive at the inbound ramp from the central market and include pallets of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and sausage products and fresh fish.  These are checked by quality control and in some cases weighed to ensure they meet the checklist.  A little later they are joined by the non-perishables such as beverage cans, noodles, rice, kitchen paper, tableware, napkins and canned goods and the products are all distributed to the cold-storage room or warehouse.  Heathrow is currently recognised as the world’s busiest international airport so it’s no surprise that Ms Jenkinson says its local operation is busy and complex, adding that its customer range is: “vast” and covers “virtually every aspect” of in-flight catering.
The low-cost market isn’t widely represented at Heathrow as it is at Stansted or Gatwick, so LSG’s Heathrow facility largely deals with long-haul full-service carriers.  The duration of the airline customers’ individual contracts varies widely, with the average lasting about three years.  By contrast though, some clients have contracts that have stretched for 15 to 20 years.  A recent addition is the deal to supply Air Canada’s 12 long-haul flights per day.
 
The Process
In 2009 alone, LSG Sky Chefs processed 1,570 tons of fresh vegetables and 1,300 tons of fruit at German airports. Added to this were approximately 60 tons of salmon, 259 tons of poultry, 405 tons of butter, 800,000 litres of milk and 932 tons of cheese.
As the deliveries are being logged in, staff in the cold kitchen begin the preparation of the cold hors d’oeuvre plates.  For each dish there is a specification sheet showing which ingredients are needed in which quantities and how these are to be arranged on the plate.  This is the only way the company can ensure that every meal looks the same as requested by its customer and that every passenger has food that tastes the same.
Meanwhile, in the adjacent hot kitchen, the water for noodles is boiling away in large cooking pots, while chefs are preparing portions of sautéed vegetables.  After the dishes are preparedthey are immediately passed through a so-called blast chiller, which cools them down rapidly to meet with strict hygiene rules.
As Ms Jenkinson mentioned, the basis for the problem-free operation of the catering processes is perfect logistics and the entire production system is supervised from the central control centre.  Here all arrivals and departures are managed, passenger numbers are checked and details of special meals recorded.  This data is conveyed to individual production points throughout the building and from there to individual workstations, where products can be prepared to a strict timetable.  “Keeping the flight schedule is the highest goal,” she said.
With this information, the cold and chilled hot meals are loaded onto individual trays with the required cutlery, glasses and napkins and loaded into the catering trolleys.  These are then transferred to the cold store or cooling sheds ready for departure.  The story of LSG is not all about food though, and as well as the catering LSG also provides equipment such as cups, dishes, blankets, pillows, in-flight magazines, first-aid kits etc. and these are all prepared to strict guidelines.  Also bonded items are provided such as duty free spirits, cigarettes and watches.
A catering agent checks that each order has been fulfilled and ensures that seals have been placed on each trolley for security reasons.  They then give the all-clear to the highloader driver to deliver the goods to the aircraft.  Up to 40,000 individual parts can be loaded on a single aircraft and for example the Lufthansa A380 handled by LSG at Frankfurt airport can require 110 containers and 30 trolleys in a consignment that weighs around 19,140lb (8,700kg).  A team of four vehicles and eight staff routinely complete their A380 turnaround duties within the 75-minute window allowed.
LSG’s Heathrow customers are served by 55 highload trucks plus a fleet of smaller vehicles.  Two of its highloaders were purpose-built to handle its Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 contract.  They cost approximately £200,000 (US$320,000) each as apposed to the £100-120,000 (US$160-190,000) a standard high loader would cost.
In order to meet Heathrow’s rules about how long an individual vehicle can remain in use at the airport, LSG’s fleet of vehicles is routinely rotated though its other UK locations.
 
Punctuality
As every aspect of the service is so time sensitive the customer contracts state that LSG must arrive at the aircraft within a specified turnaround window.
Although its customer airlines’ schedules form the basis of its everyday plans, when information regarding a delayed inbound flight is issued by the respective handling agent, this update is filtered through LSG’s Dispatch office which monitors and controls the company’s vehicles.  Under ideal conditions the road journey from LSG’s Heathrow facilities to the airport takes about 20 minutes and then the vehicles and their occupants go through the routine security checks with everybody else.  The road network around Heathrow is very busy for most of the day.  Expected road journey times are obviously taken into account at the planning stage though, as with any other road network, traffic problems can occasionally throw a spanner in the works.  Despite the many logistical hurdles that must be navigated, Jenkinson says that it is rare for LSG to be the cause of a delay.  The focus is such that the company constantly monitors its on time performance achievements and produces its punctuality statistics on a daily basis.  “As I mentioned earlier, being on schedule means everything to us so, if the handling agent allocates any part of a delay to us then I know about it almost the minute it happens,” she explained.
Because providing food obviously involves processing perishables, meals have to be prepared a matter of hours before they will be eaten.  Therefore, if an airline cancels a flight within eight hours of its scheduled departure time it still has to pay for the catering it originally ordered.  However, recent events such as the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption that spilt an ash cloud across virtually all of Europe and effectively shut Heathrow down for several days are a different matter.  On that occasion, because airlines were forced to cancel their flights for days in advance the situation certainly had a major impact on airlines’ and suppliers’ revenues and earnings in the UK and beyond.
 
Outlook
History has shown us how quickly the aviation business can change, but with interests across the globe in every continent, LSG is well positioned to work with airline partners to help bring a sustainable future for the industry, at least in respect to in-flight services.
 
More than just food
ALONGSIDE THE traditional airline and third party catering contracts LSG Sky Chefs also supplies operators with a range of more than 400 in-flight equipment items.  These include:
• Comfort Articles
• Amenity Kits
• Children’s Activity Bags
• Blankets
• Pillows
• Headsets
• Headrest Covers
• Rotable Equipment
• China
• Plastic-ware
• Glass-ware
• Cutlery
• Linen
• Trays
• Napkins
• Crew Service Items
• Gallery Inserts
• Trolleys
• Standard Units
• Oven Inserts and Shelves
• Trash Compactor Boxes
• Drawers
• Racks
• Waste Bags
• Glass Racks
• Branded Beverages
• Juices
• Mineral Water
• Soft Drinks
• Beer
• Champagne
• Wine
• Alcoholic Spirits
 
 
 

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