How will inflight meals change after the pandemic? 4 things I learned from touring an airline catering facility

Apr 6, 2022

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct the number of employees working at Gate Gourmet’s Washington (IAD) location. 

Airlines are not just restoring full onboard service — they’re bringing inventive dishes to the tray table.

The shift in meal options is partly due to the rise of dietary restrictions and changing food preferences, such as a growing interest in plant-based items. But it is also a result of airlines seeking to stay on top of the latest culinary trends, much like a fine-dining restaurant.

Which brings us to Gate Gourmet, the Swiss-based company that makes that magic happen for dozens of carriers worldwide, handling inflight catering logistics from start to finish.

TPG recently was invited to get an exclusive tour of Gate Gourmet’s brilliant catering facility at Dulles International Airport (IAD) outside Washington, D.C. Here’s what the experience was like — and four key takeaways from my visit.

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In This Post

Behind the scenes at Dulles International Airport

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

When I pulled up to the Gate Gourmet complex at Dulles, which is one of the company’s 30 locations in the U.S., I was admittedly surprised by just how much real estate it occupied. The sprawling catering facility measures more than 130,000 square feet.

While it’s hardly surprising to learn that this facility works quite a bit with United Airlines, which has a key hub at Dulles, United is not the only carrier served by this Gate Gourmet location. An array of international carriers, including Air France, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, have resumed flights at Dulles, creating a booming business once again for Gate Gourmet’s Dulles outpost.

“There’s lots of action this spring,” said Joshua Janow, the North America president for Gategroup (the parent company of Gate Gourmet). “Lots of transatlantic flights have come back, which means there’s a huge demand for various service levels on board.”

Curious to see the company’s operation in action, I stepped inside to watch employees swiftly prepare meals for red-eye flights ahead of evening departures from Dulles.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

To ensure each meal was prepared according to health and safety standards, I put on a fresh face mask, a magenta hairnet and a button-up gown that reached my ankles before beginning my exclusive tour.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

I then entered the facility with a few employees, stopping to sanitize my hands and the bottom of my shoes before moving into the food-handling area. The process was incredibly smooth and efficient, reminding me of an automated car wash.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

We first visited the warehouse, a neatly arranged repository of dry and canned goods organized by airline.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

Here, I learned that everything arrives at the facility in bulk-size containers and crates. In fact, this particular location goes through 1,000 pounds of chicken, 500 pounds of potatoes and 400 pounds of carrots per day.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

Before the pandemic, Gate Gourmet was the largest purchaser of produce in the Washington, D.C., area. While demand declined throughout the pandemic, the latest uptick in international flights would suggest the company is well on its way toward increasing its produce demand again in the coming months.

Once the facility receives a batch of produce, it hand-washes the items before transferring them to the kitchen, where we moved to next.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

Ingredients are carefully chosen for each meal to ensure the integrity of every texture and flavor can be preserved when reheated. This meticulous selection process is why you’ll find grilled tomatoes under a bed of scrambled eggs for breakfast, for example — the tomatoes keep the eggs moist for as long as possible.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

After each ingredient is individually cooked, the person preparing the food (known in the industry as the food handler) sends the trays off to be assembled.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

The meals then get wrapped, stacked on trolleys and moved to a blast chiller to cool down.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

Once an aircraft is ready to accept the meals, the carts are wheeled out to delivery trucks at the loading dock, which is where I concluded my tour.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

This part of the facility was easily the busiest area at the site. Employees waited for incoming trucks in need of unloading and loading. When a vehicle was ready to be emptied, the dishes, glassware and trash from previous flights were removed before clean replacements were put inside.

This process, from start to finish, is completed within 24 hours so that your food is delivered fresh. Flight attendants reheat and prepare the meals on board based on quality standards provided by Gate Gourmet, so they arrive neatly plated at your tray table ready for you to consume.

How the pandemic is impacting airplane catering now and moving forward

While much of the catering process remains the same as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, a few aspects have changed or become more important in light of the events of the past couple of years.

Safety has been and will continue to be top of mind

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

Despite an unexpected pivot in operations due to the pandemic, the team at Gate Gourmet says one detail will always be paramount: safety.

Besides the essentials — face masks, gloves and aprons — food temperatures are obsessively measured.

For example, employees record the time when meals enter the blast chiller and are loaded into trucks to keep tabs on any temperature changes that may occur throughout the preparation process. If the temperature goes above 50 degrees Fahrenheit for a defined period of time, the meals are scrapped.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

Temperatures are monitored by the flight crew, too, to ensure the meals are not compromised at any point in the process. The assigned flight coordinator for every international flight watches for any potential flight delays that could affect the food before giving the final green light to have the items loaded onto the plane.

If a long delay occurs, meals will be kept in the blast chiller at Gate Gourmet until they’re ready to be loaded onto the trucks and then planes. Extra meals are also prepared in case replacements are needed.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

In addition to temperature monitoring, Gate Gourmet also employs a separate team of employees to handle special meals in areas away from the other items. This ensures the meals are safely prepared according to strict guidelines.

Related: United bringing back Kosher options and other specialized meals

While the volume of food has changed, consistency has not

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

It’s no secret that the pandemic affected the inflight food and beverage experience. Many airlines severely reduced or changed onboard service, citing safety reasons for cutting back on meals and drinks, especially in premium cabins.

Janow said that the challenges of the pandemic have not impacted the consistency of Gate Gourmet’s operations, only the volume of food prepared in the company’s facilities.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

That’s because airlines ultimately decide how meals should be presented to passengers, and those decisions are moving food service back to pre-pandemic norms.

Instead of serving items on one tray to reduce touch points between cabin crew and passengers, carriers are now shifting back to multi-course meals served at various points during a flight.

At the same time, airlines are also seeing an increase in passengers flying, leading to a rise in meal demand and a subsequent need for more employees at Gate Gourmet.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

“Pre-COVID, we had about 10,000 workers in the U.S.,” Janow said. “We’re making our way back there. There’s over 35 nations of origin that are represented in this unit alone and more than a dozen languages [spoken]. It’s an example of how we come together and is a microcosm of what we do globally.”

In fact, the increase in meal service on flights had led to a spike in hiring at Gate Gourmet facilities. Just at the Dulles location alone, the company employs about 500 people.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

To keep all of the food being produced by staff at the quality expected, Gategroup gives food handlers their own tablets so they can compare stock photos of items to the dishes they are assembling.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

The information on the tablets also helps them check details like dish weights, loading schedules and the total number of dishes needed that day, which are all vital parts of the quality-control process.

Related: Hot, plated meals are officially making a comeback on Delta flights

Creative, chef-curated dishes are becoming increasingly popular

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

Although prepackaged, uninspired meals were fixtures on planes throughout the pandemic, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for foodies craving more exciting options when they fly.

In spring of 2021, Gate Gourmet added chef Molly Brandt to its staff. Prior to joining the company as its executive innovation chef for North America, Brandt had no airline catering experience — but she sees that as a positive, one that means, “I can be as creative as possible in the kitchen” with no preconceived notions of what airline food should be.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

“We take a look at specific ingredients that are trending and discuss with airlines [how] to capture their strategy and brand goals they want to serve for their customers,” Brandt said.

This has led to all kinds of innovations coming out of Brandt’s test kitchen.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

During my visit, we tried a sampling of tapas-style dishes, including crab dip with “kimcheese” (a mashup of kimchi and pimento cheese), a butternut squash custard, a tartare made with beets instead of beef and plant-based Impossible meatballs.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

I couldn’t even tell that the meatballs, loosely inspired by Japanese yakitori (a grilled meat dish), were made with a meat substitute.

By leveraging bold flavors, Brandt aims to satiate passengers’ hunger pangs without resorting to high volumes of sleep-inducing salt. This is particularly challenging given the tendency to lose function in about 33% of your taste buds when flying 30,000-plus feet in the air, according to Brandt.

Drawing on her culinary expertise, Brandt turns to sour and umami flavors and dials up the amount of spices used in a dish. Once she finds the right balance between acid, sweetness, heat and bitterness through multiple rounds of testing, she brings her creations to the masses.

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

While this customized process could get pricey for airlines, Brandt insists there are ways to cut down on costs without sacrificing the integrity of the original dish. For example, an airline can choose to omit the crab from the kimcheese dip or go with a more cost-effective, in-season vegetable instead of butternut squash for the custard.

And, of course, the level of food service and quality will vary depending on the cabin class. With the rise of premium economy cabins, airlines can now introduce a new level of dining by either simplifying meals served to those who don’t book the most expensive fares or adding an in-between meal to bridge the gap between economy and the business- or first-class experience.

Overall, the team at Gate Gourmet is optimistic about this new era of inflight meals, which has created opportunities for the company to cater to the latest food trends and changing consumer demands while still providing satisfying yet balanced meals.

Related: Delta adds 5 new vegetarian meals to its inflight menu

Branching out beyond airplane meals is key to continued success

(Photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy)

Gategroup is a huge conglomerate that does more than just produce meals for flights. The company also works with carriers to create amenity kits and provide food in some airport lounges.

Its services also extend beyond airports.

“Over the last two years, we’ve been able to utilize capacity that wasn’t needed [at airports] … and start to serve customers outside of the airline space,” Janow said. “Rather than on an airplane, you might be buying [our meal] from a supermarket. That space has been very fruitful and successful for us.”

So, if you’ve been missing the inflight experience lately, keep your eyes peeled for a delicious, easy-to-prep meal from Gategroup at a grocery store near you.

Related: The 5 best first-class meals in the sky today

Bottom line

Sometimes, a trip is more about the journey than the destination itself. When airline meals are done right, dining at 35,000 feet can truly be a divine experience.

As we look ahead to what the future has in store for the travel industry, we’ll continue to keep tabs on companies like Gate Gourmet that are not only weathering the COVID-19 storm, but are also innovating and evolving the airplane food experience — even if it’s sometimes on the fly.

Featured photo by Stella Shon/The Points Guy.

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