News & Press

Mile-High Meals,

Written by:
Nichola Jones
August 09, 2009

Spongy omelettes, lukewarm coffee and a bread roll past its best used to be all passengers had to look forward to as they sat back and waited for a meal to break up the monotony of a flight. But times have changed and Dubai is now home to the world’s biggest and most advanced in-flight catering service, proving it is possible to enjoy top-notch food at 30,000ft.

The Emirates Airline catering service produces tens of thousands of meals every day, not just for its own flights, but also for dozens of other carriers.

The Emirates Airline catering service produces tens of thousands of meals every day, not just for its own flights, but also for dozens of other carriers.

In 2007, a $120 million facility opened to exclusively cater for Emirates’ flights and behind the gates of the state-of-the-art facility in Garhoud is an intensive operation involving a staff of more than 6,000 producing 80,000 meals per day. Senior vice president of catering services, Duncan Davis, said: “There are many different processes involved before your meal arrives in front of you on a flight. From the delivery of goods to the preparation and packing of food, loading and unloading, cleaning and restocking, it all happens here.”

A 2km monorail system serves the building and transports everything needed to make sure your flight is ready for take-off. Duty free items, blankets, pillows, drinks, toiletries, medical kits are all supplied from there and loaded on the plane in what could be a turn-around as fast as 75 minutes. But the main function of the facility is to ensure every passenger has the food they need for their journey.

The hot food kitchen is split into sections which specialise in producing Arabic, Japanese,Chinese, Indian and continental cuisine. Each one is headed by a chef native to that region and an expert in the authentic dishes of a particular country. A total of 42 top chefs from around the world, led by American James Griffith, carefully plan and devise menus and, of course, taste each dish. The team has even put together their own recipe book to allow you to try their meals on the ground rather than thousands of feet in the air.

On Emirates flights, first class passengers can expect a choice of wines and al a carte starters, mains and desserts including everything from poached seabass and pepper beef fillet to sesame rolled tuna loin and wild mushroom crumble.

Griffith said: “Choice is really important for everyone, not just first class and business class. We also have special meals to cater for different religions and dietary requirements and everything is halal.” With the exception of Arabic bread - every single item of food is hand made. From cookies and children’s lollies to bellinis and crème brûlée, it is all prepared on the premises.

The pastry kitchen is a sight in itself - with trays of thousands of pies, biscuits and Arabic sweets stretching across the worktops. Griffith, who worked as a chef at some of Europe’s best hotels before moving into flight catering, said: “It is unusual to have everything handmade like this but it is about the quality even though it is very labour intensive. Working here is different to hotel catering as you don’t have the pressure of service and can concentrate on the food.”

Taste and quality is at the top of the agenda but hygiene is a priority. Apart from food temperature and storage checks in the kitchens, there are spot checks on food samples, preparation practices and staff hand swabs which are processed through Emirates’ own microbiology lab. Assistant vice president of hygiene and safety, Grant Douglas, says the recent spate of fatal food poisoning cases in Dubai has highlighted the importance of tight regulations and thorough safety checks.

“What has happened recently is terrible and it put the whole issue of food safety back on the table. It highlights why what we do is so important and that things like temperature control of food is critical,” he said. The constant creation of tens of thousands of dishes every day is only one part of the process to ensure you are fed and watered on your flight. There is a high-tech system in place to transport the meals on to the flight as well as clean and resupply two million pieces of crockery, cutlery and condiments every day. There is a production line of people working around the clock to assemble the tray that will eventually arrive in front of you at your seat.

Each worker is expected to put together 70 trays per hour. Davis said: “The staff are excellent.They are split into teams and they like to get some competition going between them to see who can beat the targets.”

Once the trays are ready and nestling in the food carts, they have to make it on to the plane. Assistance vice president of operations, Marc Strauch, is in charge of overseeing the loading and unloading of the 153 trucks that take the aircraft meals and supplies to the terminal tarmac. It’s a non-stop operation seven days a week.

Although speed is vital, ensuring food safety is the top priority. Everything is stored in chillers and dry ice is even added to food carts to ensure that if a container is waiting even for a few minutes to go, the goods are kept cool. And there is a hygienist on hand to test and record the temperature of every batch. “We keep records of checks on everything, safety is very important,” Strauch said.

Despite the global financial gloom, Emirates says it is continuing to grow and believes the facility will be running to full capacity - 115,000 meals per day - in the near future. This year’s busiest day so far was July 3 when the catering team reached its annual record of 109,405 meals in 24 hours. But the team its now gearing up to beat its own personal best this month and Strauch says he expects to top the July total as the summer season gets into full swing.

“That was a very high number because it was the start of school holidays but we expect there will be days in August when do more than that. “It is certainly very busy in the summer but then we are equipped to cope with it,” he said.

Emirates Catering Facility Facts   

  • It’s the largest airline catering facility in the world   
  • Total area: 55,000 square metres   
  • Total cost: $120 million   
  • Capacity: 115,000 meals per day   
  • Number of food trollies handled per day: 17,000   
  • Number of CCTV cameras: 220   
  • Ice cube production: 24 tonnes per day

Passengers on Emirates each year tuck into...       

  • 187 tonnes of beef tenderloin   
  • 188 tonnes assorted prawns   
  • 580 tonnes of chicken   
  • 2.2 million eggs   
  • 190,000 litres of whipping cream   
  • 50 tonnes of lobster meat   
  • 18 tonnes of cheddar cheese