Onboard Confidential

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes in the world of airline catering?

Now's your chance to find out. Ask us, an anonymous group of current and former insiders, anything you always wanted to know.

"How many airline caterers are there in the US?" -"curiousinfinance"

Dear curiousinfinance,

In the US, the vast majority of airline catering is provided by GateGourmet or LSG Skychefs. The other established players in the space include AirFayre, dnata, Flying Food Group, Newrest, and SkyCafe. There are almost certainly other small providers out there, but we would estimate that Gate Gourmet and LSG make up about 75-80% of the volume, with the others listed closing the gap. There may be another 3-5% or so provided by other suppliers.

It's worth noting that LSG is (still) for sale, so a purchase of them by one of the other companies listed could certainly have a big impact on the landscape.

"Are there any airlines this still operate their own flight kitchens? - "curious&hungry"

Dear curious&hungry,

There are quite a few airlines out there that own catering providers (dnata, LSG SkyChefs, SATS, for example), though there are few airlines that operate caterers directly. KLM and Korean Air continue to operate kitchens, while Q Catering, which was a unit of Qantas was sold to dnata a few years back. In the US, United Airlines transitioned their kitchens (which had been inherited from Continental) late last year. Prior to United's transaction, the last US airline to depart the catering space was Frontier/Republic.

Though the number of airlines that operate kitchens directly is pretty limited, that is not to say that "provisioning" is not insourced. Notably, Southwest provisions its own aircraft, as does American in select markets.

"My base manager told me the coffee pots on board dont need regular washing because of the temperature the coffee is served at. This can't be right, can it?? " - "Luv2Fly"

Dear Luv2Fly,

You might be giving me a reason to revisit my confidence drinking coffee on board. Wow, is you supervisor wrong.

Regulations in the US (and pretty much everywhere) require "food contact" surfaces to be regularly cleaned and sanitized. If your company isn't including coffee pots in that process, you should consider alerting your leadership to the safety and compliance risks that presents your customers and your airline.

"My company is forcing us to eat Muslim meals and is blaming our caterers for a lack of alternatives. Could this be true? It feels like discrimination to me." - "jesusismyupgrade"

Dear jesusismyupgrade,

This is a tough one to cover in a relatively short response. Halal (food items permitted under the rules of Islam) are prepared in a manner that ensures there are no ingredients or components that would not be accepted in Islam. The meals themselves are not "blessed" or subject to any overt religious ceremony. This is especially true of entrees that do not contain animal products.

Depending on the part of the globe you are in and the item in question, it may be very difficult to source items, particularly proteins, that would not have been prepared in accordance with a Halal process. So in answer to your question, I would say there is at least the probability of what you were told being partially true.

"What is going on with catering in MIA? I'm a FA and we are seeing more and more flights not getting catered at all." - "IFLY4AA"


I'm going to assume you work for American, which uses a company called LSG SkyChefs for their catering in MIA. Across the board, caterers in the US have struggled to hire employees at a rate that matches the growth from the large domestic carriers. Generally speaking, the drivers who operate the catering trucks have been the hardest to hire, due in part to the aggressive hiring throughout the logistics and supply chain industries providing a lot of competition to the catering companies. When caterers are unable to hire drivers they are unable to transport carts and materials from the kitchens out the to all the flights, which often results in no service being provided on some flights. Different airlines have taken varied approaches in dealing with these shortages, with some pairing back catering and doing more "round-trip" or "back catering", while others have reduced service levels to providing only basic items upon crew requests. Pretty much all options have clear draw-backs that impact you and your coworkers as well as the customers. From what we are hearing, LSG has worked with AA on pay adjustments, so there may be some relief coming soon.

"Do caterers really track the liquor and buy on board items? I work for a regional (Republic) and was told they only do that for mainline." - "wheresmyliquormoney"

Dear wheresmyliquormoney,

Ultimately the caterers do what their airline customers pay them to do. For some carriers, they have made the determination that some loss of product is tolerable and does not outweigh the costs to effectively track the items. That said, I think it's important to highlight that international flights generally require a higher level of tracking for the liquor items (or tobacco in duty free) due to customs exposure.

My strong advice would be to not risk taking any of these items off an aircraft. While caterers may not routinely inventory for all of their customers, they absolutely support special requests when there are suspicions around specific crewmembers. I'd also add that there is emerging technology that can more effectively track inventory using cameras. As technology improves and the costs to track inventory fall, I would absolutely expect the controls on this type of inventory to expand.

"Do caterers recycle? I've heard it all goes in the trash regardless." -"concernedforearth"

Dear concernedforearth,

Just for clarity, let's assume we are talking about in the US, and focus on waste items from domestic flights- international arrivals have specific handling requirements for trash that typically result in pretty low rates of recycling on those flights.

For domestic activity, the level of recycling done by caterers is a mixed bag, and it's heavily influenced by their airline customers' demands. For most caterers in the US, the only commodity it makes clear financial sense to recycle is cardboard. Everything else requires some level of investment. Some caterers have integrated sorting processes and compactors for recycling, which helps increase the value of the recycled material. This makes the effort a bit more rewarding. If caterers were to just pass along comingled, loose recycling, the costs would be higher than that to just throw away as trash. In those situations, there are as many locations that would decline to recycle and throw away as there are those that would go the extra mile to recycle... assuming their airline customers are willing to pick up the tab. As an industry we have a lot we need to do to streamline the kinds of recyclable items we have on board, as well as how we collect them, if we want to see substantial growth in recycling volumes.

"What kind of internal traction is there with this "covid theatre" that somehow makes a cold sandwich safer than hot food? - "sAAdflyer"

Dear sAAdflyer,

Obviously if all things are equal, the food itself doesn't have any impact on covid risk. Personally, I'd agree that there is a bit too much use of "covid" as an explanation for service changes and adjustments. I can't say whether those explaining the changes really believe what they are saying or are putting a spin on it. There are certainly some legit reasons why airlines have not yet returned to the "good ole days" of beef, chicken, or pasta;

First, the supply chain for these meals is still a mess. Believe it or not, there are not that many suppliers than produce for airlines, which is in itself kind of a niche business. While you can bring in some items from broadline suppliers, there is a high degree of specificity that makes some of these components hard to replace.

In addition to the supply chain challenges, there are MAJOR limitations with the catering supplier network- particularly in the US. These are typically lower-margin businesses that are almost all union operations with complicated wage negotiation strategies. The caterers really need to be careful as they adjust wages; go to high and eventually loose customers to lower cost options, not go high enough and you fail to get the employees you need to run the business. Sadly, most of the industry is leading toward the latter right now.

The last issue is the staffing on board. Airlines are facing their of staffing challenges are are looking to spread their employees as far as they can. That often means operating at or close to minimum FAA staffing. That can potentially impact the service delivery, as the FA groups may push back against doing items that were previously handled by coworkers that were assigned galley roles. This will likely take some time to work through, for the airlines that decide to stick to the lower staffing. Time will tell if that strategy is worthwhile.

In the mean time, expect to see "adjustments" stick around for a bit.

"I've been told never to drink the coffee served on an airplane because the water isn't safe. Is that true?" - "ThirstyInCMH"

Dear ThirstyInCMH,

I never hesitate to drink coffee on my flights (domestically, at least).

Since 2010, airlines in the US are required to comply with the "Aircraft Drinking Water Rule", which put's aircraft water as of the EPA's scope of oversight for drinking water safety. The rule requires airlines to regularly sanitize the systems on board aircraft, as well as requiring regular laboratory tests of the water dispensed from different faucets/outlets on every aircraft. If any of these water samples fail, the system much be deactivated until the issue is resolved. The results for these test are public records and can be found online using the EPA's ADWR Compliance Report feature.

You are free to make your own decision on what you drink aboard any aircraft, but the publicly-available data certainly does not raise a lot of concerns for me.

"Who oversees the caterers? If I see something I think is unsafe, who should I report it to? - "concernedcrew"

Dear concernedcrew,

Caterers answer to a lot of different people, depending on the issue. Airline catering is a surprisingly hyper-regulated business. From a business standpoint, the caterers obviously report to their airline customers- though the mechanisms in place to manage these relationships vary a lot from airline to airline. In our experience, airline representatives generally audit their largest kitchens once or twice a year, with smaller units being much less frequent. Note that if a location is a particularly poor performer the airline is likely spending a lot of time there, but on the whole that tends to be the exception more so than the rule.

On the regulatory side, caterers in the US answer to the FDA (Food & Drug Administration), as well as potentially the USDA. (Food oversight gets VERY complicated…) In the past, local food safety regulatory bodies were largely excluded from oversight due to the interstate nature of air travel, but recent legislation has opened the door for local regulators to inspect facilities on behalf of the FDA. Other regulators for kitchens include the TSA, US Customs, OSHA, local building inspectors, etc. Generally speaking, most caterers take compliance pretty seriously, but there are always potential lapses.

With regard to your question on who to reach out to with concerns, my suggestion would be to start with the airline. No airline wants to risk the health of their customers or risk the liability and associated impact to their brand a publicized food safety failure can bring. If you have exhausted your airline’s reporting channels and don’t feel you are getting assistance, you can always reach out to the FDA directly. Providing safe, wholesome food to passengers and crew is something all of us in the industry care about. If you have concerns and don’t know who to turn to, you can always reach out to us via the “ask a question” function to request a chat. We are happy to provide you advice anonymously, if you’d like.

"Does my airline actually pass along our feedback to caterers? - "NW2DLFA"


Delta has a fairly robust team (they call is "OBS") that gather feedback and share it with the caterers. I have seen that feedback myself, and have engaged with the regional managers in the field who are tasked with managing all of Delta's catering partners.

I think it's probably worth mentioning; a lot of the feedback that comes to caterers are really in regards to items that are outside the caterers control. Feedback regarding the meal selected, portion sizes, accompanying dishes, beverage selection, etc., are all decisions made by the airline. Even the locations where items are stored in the galleys are determined by the airline. I mention this because I think it's important for crewmembers to know what caterers are able to address and what they can't.

"Are galley carts made for specific aircraft? I was told they are considered aircraft parts and are not interchangeable."- "Igotthespirit"

Dear Igotthespirit,

Galley equipment is indeed considered to be aircraft parts, but regulators look at these components differently then they do many other items. Not that long ago (30 year or so), airlines frequently ordered carts that were unique to them or specific aircraft in their fleet, but over time this practice has fallen out of favor, and the vast majority of galley equipment today is built around a standard known as "Atlas". That's not to say there are not still plenty of old carts and carrier units of older standards still in use, but that number is declining. Aside from "Atlas" the most common equipment type was probably KSSU, which stood for "KLM, Sabena, Swissair, and United"... the carriers that jointly came up with the standard. Of those airlines, only KLM and United are still around, and though I am not certain about KLM, I do know that United has a few aircraft in their fleet that continue to use KSSU equipment. I'm sure that makes aircraft swaps fun!!

"How does catering for a low cost carrier differ from catering for a traditional long-haul airline? - "Oneasy(jet)street"


What a great question!

There is of course no difference in what is required for caterers based exclusively on whether the carrier is a full service airline or one with a low cost model. The items offered for guests by the airline really define the catering model being used, with low cost carriers tending to offer mostly a "buy on board" model, including packaged items that can be recycled if not sold on a given flight. To contrast, full service airlines typically offer fresh (read: items that require refrigeration) that are not salvaged by the caterers. This difference in product handling required tends to drive more frequent catering events for full service carriers, as the fresh items are not really suitable to be left on board for extended periods of time- such as multiple flight segments. There are of course instances of low cost carriers offering fresh items, but this practice tends to be fairly limited.