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  • Airplane food used to look like this.

  • And this.

  • But now can look something like this.

  • For many people economy class used to mean soggy pasta, rubbery eggs

  • and dried out chicken.

  • For a time, U.S.

  • airlines even stopped serving free meals altogether in economy class.

  • But in 2019 U.S.

  • airlines posted their tenth straight year of profitability and

  • premium and economy cabins are seeing more food options than ever

  • before. At Delta, American and United, airlines work with celebrity

  • chefs to help craft their menus for people sitting at the front of

  • the plane. Passengers are a lot pickier than they used to be.

  • There seem to be a lot more vegans.

  • There seem to be a lot where people who are looking for high protein

  • and low carb and gluten free and airlines are getting those requests

  • and they're trying to change their menus to follow that.

  • In 2018, almost 2.8

  • million people flew in and out of U.S.

  • airports every day an almost five percent increase from 2017.

  • Those extra travelers have forced airlines to rethink not only their

  • menus, but also the way they deliver meals to passengers.

  • With more people traveling than ever before, how do airlines make

  • meals for thousands of people and what are the costs?

  • Airlines in the U.S. started flying in the early 1920's.

  • At the time, airplane engines were noisy and planes faced heavy winds

  • flying at low altitude.

  • To provide comfort for weary passengers airlines offered food.

  • Some airlines had contracts with local restaurants who supplied food

  • for flights on a regular basis.

  • Others made stops mid-flight at restaurants on the ground en route to

  • their final destination.

  • It was much more common to, for example, fly from New York to Chicago

  • and land in the middle at a small airport and make sure that the

  • small airport had some kind of restaurant open.

  • And so this is where the passengers would be fed.

  • In the 1930s, airline meals started to evolve.

  • In 1930, United Airlines became the first U.S.

  • carrier to enlist the help of flight attendants.

  • The stewardesses doubled as registered nurses who passed out snacks

  • while also helping passengers who became airsick.

  • In 1936, United opened its first flight kitchen in Oakland,

  • California, serving hot meals including fried chicken and scrambled

  • eggs. But it was a slow service because, in fact, a flight attendant

  • was there more as a nurse to help you deal with your fright of being

  • in the air or not feeling well after having eaten on the ground.

  • The Boeing 247, unveiled in 1933, was considered by many to be the

  • first modern air passenger plane.

  • The planes seated 10 passengers and had a cruising speed of 155 miles

  • per hour. At the time, everyone on the plane flew first class.

  • The vast majority of passengers were wealthy, male and mostly

  • business executives.

  • Technical improvements during World War II allowed airlines to fly

  • bigger planes longer distances.

  • By the late 1940's, propeller planes flew 50 to 60 people at a time.

  • You're not going to have a movie, you're not going to have music, so

  • what are you going to do for these, say, on average, 12 to 18 hours

  • that a transatlantic flight is going to take?

  • Of course, the answer is drink and food.

  • For some, the 1950's and 60's were seen as the Golden Age of air

  • travel. At the front of the plane, airlines offered champagne and

  • lobster thermidor.

  • Food was served on white tablecloths and fine China.

  • But for the masses, the introduction of jet engines in the late

  • 1950's launched the era of the economy class.

  • The 1950's announced a class divide.

  • This is when you start seeing plastic wear.

  • In the early 60's, airline catering was still generally part of the

  • airline operations.

  • Airlines relied on local airport restaurants or local airport hotels.

  • But with an increase in passengers, carriers struggled to keep up

  • with demand. In the late 60's and early 70's, more airlines either

  • started their own in-house catering businesses or outsourced the work

  • to third-party private catering companies.

  • Historians say meals were reportedly good but dry.

  • Food was cooked on or near the airport to preserve freshness and

  • avoid contamination.

  • With the launch of the Boeing 747 in 1970, planes could now carry up

  • to 500 passengers forcing airlines and flight attendants to feed even

  • more passengers.

  • The 1970's brought about other sweeping changes for the airlines.

  • Rising fuel costs from two separate oil crises gave carriers eager to

  • cut costs an incentive to trim their food budgets.

  • And the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 gave legacy carriers a new

  • competitor - low-cost airlines.

  • Budget airlines allowed travelers to buy tickets for as little as $25

  • making passengers pay extra for soft drinks and snacks.

  • Cost cutting continued into the 1980's when American Airlines CEO

  • Robert Crandall famously removed an olive from every salad in first

  • class saving the carrier $40,000 in 1987.

  • It's in the details.

  • Are you going to include three cherry tomatoes in that salad that

  • you're serving to economy class or can they do with two cherry

  • tomatoes? That's laughable from our vantage point but when you're

  • trying to serve 400 passengers and the big flying metal tube, that's

  • going to make a difference for the accountants.

  • In the early 2000's airline faced

  • falling profits following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the SAR's

  • epidemic. From 2001 through 2005.

  • U.S. carriers lost a record $60 billion, according to Airlines for

  • America, an industry, trade and lobbying group.

  • To save money many airlines stopped serving meals.

  • Airline meals had actually gone out of fashion.

  • The airlines stopped serving them when they were in these dire

  • financial straits after 9/11, there were a series of bankruptcies and

  • then followed by a series of mergers and airlines were looking to cut

  • costs wherever they could.

  • But by 2019, U.S.

  • airlines posted their tenth year of profitability.

  • In order to compete for those economy class passengers many airlines

  • brought the free meal back.

  • One of the biggest challenges airline chefs face is how do you

  • prepare hot meals for thousands of people simultaneously?

  • The answer, it takes an army.

  • Emirates flight catering located at Dubai Airport makes an average of

  • 225,000 meals a day for over 500 flights.

  • To get the job done it requires a culinary team of more than 11,000

  • people, including 1,800 chefs.

  • The facility operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

  • Darren Bott is Emirates Airline vice president of catering.

  • Emirates spends more than a billion dollars a year around the world

  • on food and beverage, a ccording to Bott.

  • Because of the size and scope of who we are, we're running in excess

  • of 7,000 menus a year.

  • The whole exercise takes minimum of 12 months, really from start to

  • finish to to start from creating new dishes in that concept

  • development facilitate to ultimately getting those onboard in flight.

  • Because Dubai is in the desert, almost all the food used in the

  • kitchen has to be imported.

  • Fruits and vegetables come from Europe, berries from the US, beef and

  • lamb comes from Australia, and poultry comes from South America.

  • Meal production starts roughly 48 hours prior to take off.

  • In addition to a bakery, a butchery and a vegetable prep area, the

  • facility also has a Japanese, an Indian and a Middle Eastern kitchen.

  • In 2018, Emirates Flight Catering customers consumed 110 million

  • meals, including 1,400 tons of potatoes, 72 million bread rolls, 61

  • tons of strawberries and 188 tons of salmon.

  • Every raw materials principally imported, which is a massive and very

  • complicated supply chain and logistics challenge.

  • Once meals are cooked, they are plated, placed in a cart, put into

  • refrigerated vehicles and then loaded onto the plane.

  • A fully loaded A380 can hold anywhere from 40 to 60 airline meal

  • carts weighing more than nine metric tons.

  • Airline catering is an almost $6 billion business in the U.S.,

  • according to IBISWorld, a market research firm.

  • While a few airlines like United Airlines have some in-house

  • catering, most meals are provided by third party airline catering

  • companies. In the U.S.

  • LSG Sky Chefs, Gate Gourmet and Flying Food Group are three of the

  • biggest operators and have kitchens on or near airports around the

  • country. Together, they make up nearly half of the U.S.

  • airline catering market.

  • In 2019 L SG Sky Chefs had estimated revenue in the U.S.

  • of $1.6

  • billion, Gate Gourmet had estimated revenue of $714 million and

  • Flying Food Group had estimated revenue of $490 million dollars.

  • They are all private but from what the companies have revealed to the

  • public - In the U.S.,

  • LSG Sky Chefs had estimated net income of $61.5

  • million in 2019, Gate Gourmet had estimated net income of $61.2

  • million and Flying Food Group had estimated operating income of $29.8

  • million.

  • Airlines face a number of hurdles getting hot meals to customers - no

  • open flames on a plane means everything has to be reheated.

  • Another big problem?

  • Your tastebuds are dulled at high altitudes, meaning your perception

  • of saltiness and sweetness drops.

  • So, your plane food probably tastes more bland than it actually is.

  • Let's look at how United the sole major U.S.

  • carrier to handle its catering in-house designs its menus.

  • United distributes more than 50 million meals a year.

  • Menu design can be anything from redesigning the breakfast service to

  • redeveloping United's first class Polaris dinner service.

  • Gerry Gulli is one of United Airlines two top chefs.

  • He manages more than 2,500 catering employees and works with a team

  • of design chefs from United and chefs from their partners at Gate

  • Gourmet and LSG Sky Chefs.

  • Over the course of several days, the chef's test different recipes

  • and tweak them. We test everything and put it through how it's

  • actually going to be handled on the plane.

  • We just don't want to come up with some great new fancy ideas.

  • We just want to make sure that the outcome is going to be executed

  • the way we want it day in and day out.

  • The team also takes into account feedback from customers, flight

  • attendants and their data analytics team.

  • Anything that happens on an airplane can immediately become viral.

  • You serve a bad meal and it's going to be on Instagram, it's gonna be

  • on Twitter. So airlines sort of don't want that embarrassing PR.

  • Singapore Airlines produces about 40 million meals per year.

  • To keep its offerings fresh the carrier changes its menu weekly on

  • regional flights and monthly on international flights.

  • We rely on expertise of the local caterers to advise us what fruit

  • and vegetables in season, what fish is great this month and then we

  • map that out over the course of the year.

  • Despite those efforts, airlines like Singapore still face logistical

  • challenges. It can take up to seven weeks to get some lettuce and

  • fruits into the kitchen for Singapore Airlines.

  • In 2019 the carrier expanded its farm-to-plane initiative for one of

  • the world's longest flights.

  • The 19-hour journey from Newark to Singapore sources, leafy greens

  • and vegetables from Aerofarms, an indoor vertical farm located in a

  • former warehouse near Newark Airport in New Jersey.

  • AeroFarms is a private urban agricultural company.

  • We grow without sun, without soil.

  • Instead of sun we use LED's - light-emitting diode's.

  • Instead of soil, we use a cloth growth media that's made out of 100

  • percent recycled materials.

  • A eroFarms claims it has over 300 times the productivity of a normal

  • farm because of the fast crop cycles,

  • the fully-controlled environment and the stacks of plants.

  • We harvest the vegetables and the leaf green at eight o'clock in the

  • morning and those leaf greens on the flight at eight o'clock the next

  • day. But while U.S.

  • airlines are making billions labor union leaders say many of the

  • airline caterers in the U.S.

  • who prepare first class meals for American, Delta and United are

  • struggling to make ends meet.

  • In November 2019 thousands of airline catering workers demonstrated

  • at about 15 U.S.

  • airports calling for better wages and affordable health care,

  • according to Unite Here, a union that represents 20,000 workers in

  • the airline catering industry.

  • Airline catering kitchens are factories.

  • There's workers preparing that food.

  • There's workers plating that food.

  • There's workers loading that up into that cart.

  • More than half of the workers at two of the nation's biggest airline

  • catering companies, LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet earn less than $15

  • an hour and struggle to pay for their company's expensive health

  • care, according to Unite Here.

  • And airlines aren't just facing labor issues.

  • With more people flying cabin waste has also become a top concern for

  • airline execs.

  • It is estimated that the airline industry produced almost 6 million

  • tons of cabin waste in 2017 costing the airlines almost a billion

  • dollars, according to the IATA.

  • Twenty percent of that waste was made up of untouched food and

  • drinks. But despite these issues, the in-flight catering business is

  • expected to grow at a rapid clip.

  • T he global airline catering business

  • could surge to more than $9.5

  • billion by 2026, according to a study by Fact.MR

  • a market research company. And with the number of travelers expected

  • to double by 2037, premium and economy cabins could see even more

  • food options in the future.

Airplane food used to look like this.