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Is it eating, dining or logistics? LSG onboard cuisine

Is it eating, dining or logistics? LSG onboard cuisine

For some reason, as soon as I get on a plane I think of food and wine. Maybe it is displacement… I do not want to think about the seat size, the long distance to the toilet, the bad air, the screaming children, the odor escaping from the person sitting next to me, or the possibility of exploding headsets and computer batteries. I do not want to think about the emails I am not returning, the reports I left at home, and the jet lag that is waiting for me at the end of the flight. The only topic remaining to fill the long hours between take-off and landing is food (and a glass of Prosecco).

Challenge: Onboard Catering

One fact to remember (before complaining or commenting) is the fact that passengers have no legal right to be served food onboard – so anything received is a bonus. According to the Civil Aviation Authority there are no specific regulations to provide food and drink. It is in the interest of the airline to keep passengers happy (especially on long-haul flights); however, in terms of standards and hygiene, the catering companies providing the food must be certified by the local authority including the area in which they are based and their premises are inspected.

I am sure that it is difficult to keep a plane full of people happy with food made hours (or days) earlier. Although onboard food service is not a new amenity and for decade’s food has been an integral part of the flying experience – it continues to be a challenge for all sides of the tray table.

As a Starter

At the beginning of passenger flights food was served as a distraction from the terrifying fears related to early commercial flying and service onboard was relatively simple with coffee and a sandwich basket. The first airline meal was served by Handley Page Transport, an airline started in 1919 to serve the London-Paris route. Passengers could select from sandwiches and fruit. In the 1920s Imperial Airways (United Kingdom) started to serve tea and coffee during their flights along with a few variations of cold items such as ice cream, cheese, fruits, lobster salad and cold chicken. In the 1940s selections increased and delights like salmon with mayonnaise, and ox tongue, followed by peaches and cream were part of the BOAC dining experience. Cold salads were appetizing and consistently tasty.

Hot meals were introduced in the mid-1930s and became an established amenity after a larger galley was first designed by Imperial Airways for the DC3 aircraft and it enabled extensive hot meals to be served onboard during flights.

Postwar competition motivated airlines into a culinary competition and the target market was the wealthy traveler. What ensued was a catering war with BEA branding its London-to-Paris service, “The Epicurean” (perhaps an exaggeration as the cabin was noisy, unpressurised, and heavy with the smell of diesel). By the mid-fifties falling profit margins led the International Air Transport Association to regulate the quality of food served on flights.

No Free Lunch (or Dinner)

Food costs money. Research suggests that American Airlines (in the 1980s) saved $40,000 a year in catering bills by removing a single olive from the garnish on each salad. The Air Transport Association estimates that US carriers spent $471 million on food and beverage service in the second quarter of 2003, equivalent to approximately 2.1 percent of total operating expenses or 0.30 per revenue passenger mile. This a drop from the early 1990s when the spend on food/beverage stood at approximately 0.550 per mile, representing 3.8 percent of total costs.

By reducing food costs by 10 cents on an inflight meal the airline bottom line can be significantly improved. Airlines carry approximately 1.5 billion passengers and up to 2/3s will receive a complimentary meal and/or beverage. A savings of 10 cents on a billion journeys is a total industry saving of $100 million.

Altitude Changes Attitude

Airline passengers are flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet where humidity is lower than the desert; therefore, the ability to taste is impaired by approximately 30 percent. In addition, the reheating of food, plus background noise (think aircraft engines) adversely affects perception of flavor and crunch. The tongue has 10,000 taste receptors but detects only five flavors, sweet, bitter, sour and umami (pleasant savory taste). The nose identifies thousands of individual aromas and contributes to the depth and complexity of eating. A dining experience on the ground that is wonderful will be less appealing in the air.

LSG Food Facility Security

Frankfurt Airport is a LSG hub in Germany. I had the opportunity to tour the food preparation facility and as noted in the photos, it is not a place for strolling through while waiting for a flight. The food prep building is located in a remote area at the airport and heavily guarded with security and fencing. Invitations to see the operations are not easily obtained and visitors are required to be accompanied by a staffer from the beginning to the end of the tour.

LSG Lufthansa

Airline catering creates a unique and complex challenge and not every restaurant entrepreneur or chef can find an easy path to enter the industry. The LSG Group is the world’s leading provider of end-to-end on-board products and amenities that include food and beverage service at airport lounges and on-board flights. It is the largest airline caterer with about 1/3 market share of all inflight business. The organization is among the most knowledgeable in food service and logistics. The catering activities are marketed under the LSG Sky Chefs brand through which it delivers 628 million meals a year and is available at 209 airports across the globe. In 2016, the companies belonging to the LSG Group achieved consolidated revenues of 3.2 billion Euros.

What the Passenger Wants

A recent study (2016) by F. I. Romli, K.A. Rahman and F.D Ishak of in-flight food delivery found that airlines seeking to differentiate themselves offer improved amenities that include, “…customers’ flying experience.” Over 90 percent of the respondents said they would, “…chose to travel with airlines that offer in-flight meals service if the flight ticket price is the same.”


According to Professor Peter Jones, Surrey University (UK), “…Airline catering is as much to do with logistics as it is to do with food.” There is a demand for a synchronization of scheduling between suppliers, caterers and airlines, and even the end customers. Considering the importance of scheduling along the supply chain, a study of the implications of scheduling nervousness on the performance of airline catering operations was done by Kris M.Y. Lawa (2019, Services Industry Journal). They found that the supply chain for airline catering requires competitive performance objectives that include price, quality, flexibility, responsiveness and dependability. The food and beverage scheduling depends on planned flight schedule, aircraft type, variety of catering services and expected number of passengers for each flight and service class. Other considerations include actual passenger numbers, consumption behavior of customers, culture, customs, and health related issues.

Airline catering is more challenging than any other catering service as the providers have to secure the expected service level with material available as the airline customer expects 100 percent availability of all catering items due to marketing strategic and the objective – to achieve customer satisfaction.

To reach passenger expectations while meeting corporate objectives:

1. Food is planned up to one year in advance; wines may be selected up to 2 years before they are served.

2. Food is tested in-flight and in simulated environments.

3. Ingredients are ordered in bulk from around the world and stored in specialized automated warehouses until work-orders request the facility to transfer supplies to distribution.

4. Order processing is controlled through sophisticated resource management programs; oversight by quality control is constant; kitchen staffers work to clearly defined parameters of each recipe’s work-kit.

5. In order to provide choices, pre-ordered meal service for intercontinental business class customers and other passengers is encouraged and an increasingly significant number of consumers are making their food selection before the flight.

6. Safety standards and space constraints mean food is made on the ground and near the airport under tight security conditions.

7. At assembly, a master sample dish is prepared against which all other dishes are measured. Food quantity is controlled through weight and measurement scales.

8. In the industrial kitchen, conveyer belts carry huge trays of main dishes and sides to specialized cook units, bringing food to safe temperatures for the last steps of assembly. Prepared food is first put into dishes and then into trays and finally into the endless rows of galley carts on which they will reside until flight attendants are ready to warm them up and deliver to them passengers.

9. Trolleys are used to transport the food and beverages from the kitchens to the aircraft. Once the passengers have finished their meals after the allocated time frame, the flight attendants make another round inside the cabin with the service trolleys to collect the meal trays and waste. The waste collection service is closely linked to the in-flight meal services.

10. Prearranged meals are packed in trolleys and wait for a specific flight to be transported. If a flight is delayed and the food is already on the plane, the entire load may be discarded and a replacement shipment is ordered from catering.

11. LSG Sky Chefs produces 15,000 bread rolls every hour and 30,000 sandwiches a day.

12. In 2015, 1456 tons of fresh vegetables and 1567 tons of fruit were processed plus 70 tons of salmon, 186 tons of poultry, 361 tons of butter, 943,000 liters of milk and 762 tons of cheese; 50,000 portions of salad and hors d’ouevres are served.

13. LSG Sky Chefs, each day, uses 40,000 cups, 100,000 pieces of cutlery, 120,000 plates and dishes, 85,000 glasses; 1500 trolleys are cleaned.

14. Popular beverage? Tomato juice. A Lufthansa study found that the altered air pressure leaves people craving acidity and saltiness – hence the request. Lufthansa serves about 53,000 gallons of tomato juice annually.

15. Why sauces? Keeps the precooked protein from being dry.

Airline Food Direction

LSG Lufthansa is directed by Ernst Derenthal, the go-to person for developing new food concepts. He started his career in the 1980s working in hotels and restaurants in Munich, Switzerland and Austria, entering in-flight catering with Lufthansa’s Service Company in 1985.

In Qatar, he was the Executive Chef with Gulf Air Catering and in 1988 he joined Balkan Air Catering in Sofia, Bulgaria. Derenthal moved back to the hotel industry in 1989 and joined Marriott Catering in San Francisco as an Executive Chef, returning in 1994 to in-flight catering in Hong Kong.

At the end of 1996 he joined LSG Sky Chefs in Guam and became Food Service Manager In-flight Management Solutions for all intercontinental flights with Lufthansa. Briefly he was Onboard Product Development Manager for Mexicana in Mexico City, returning to Europe in 2011 as Area Manager for LSG with responsibility for The Americas, Africa and the Middle East.

Derenthal is convinced that the onboard food and beverage service is part of the airline “entertainment” experience. While catering is not the first driver in customer decision-making for airline selection, it is critical to determining the next flight. Food safety is the number one focus; however, quality and presentation receive a great deal of personal attention.

Travelers like the idea of “provenance” – knowing where the food has come from and the methods used to produce it. Business class food service offers a wide range of options while the first-class focus is on added luxury. High-end food offerings and top of the line beverages are used to differentiate the market. In addition, first-class passengers on Lufthansa are offered the opportunity to have their meal in the airport lounge, prior to boarding the flight; however, this does not prevent them from ordering another meal during the flight.

To enhance the beverage experience, Markus Del Monego, a noted sommelier, assists in the wine selection and the onboard crew receives wine and spirits training that enables them to make “educated” suggestions for the appropriate beverage that will enhance the passengers dining experience.

Changes? Perhaps!

The market for onboard catering is likely to reach $19 billion by 2022. International inflight catering service is being stimulated by a rise in the number of passengers and increased demand for food plus the popularity of gourmet food catering as a competitive strategy for airline differentiation. As kitchen technology evolves and passenger tastes change, there is likely to be marked modifications in the food/beverage options onboard as well as the manner in which the food is presented. At the moment, Lufthansa services premium passengers with porcelain and silverware; however, global food miles and carbon footprints may see these amenities morph into lightweight and biodegradable options such as bamboo and wood pulp to reduce weight.

For the business and first-class passengers, beyond a more comfortable seat and a bed, the changes they can look forward to will focus on their appetites – after all is said and done, we travel on our stomachs.

© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.