Lonely Planet Writer

Just how fresh is the food served in your airline meal?

As the flight attendant works their way down the aisle with the trolley bearing your hot dinner at thirty-eight-thousand feet, you might wonder idly: how do meals get on the plane, and how long have they been sitting in the kitchen?

Lunch on an airplane. Image by zoranm/Getty Images

Things differ between long-haul and short-haul airlines, and indeed between low-­cost carriers and full-­service airlines. On most long-haul routes, meals are catered at both the outbound and the return airport. On some shorter flights, though, the plane may be loaded with food less frequently, because not all the food will be used on each one­-hour flight, say.

But how do they make it? I sat down with Hong Kong Airlines in their catering centre near Chek Lap Kok airport last year and was very impressed by the efforts they put into feeding us all on board —the amount of time spent on salads alone was truly remarkable —so I turned to the airline’s general manager of service delivery, Chris Birt, for the skinny on how it all works.

Image of an in-flight meal on board of an international flight. Image by Cheryl Chan/Getty Images

First, the basics: your food is fresh, and indeed is often fresher than the sandwich you might pick up at the airport. “As standard practice, catering for a specific flight is prepared by our catering partner within 24 hours of departure,” Birt explains. “The food is stored under strictly-controlled conditions to maintain quality and freshness and delivered to the aircraft directly from the catering unit within two hours of departure.”

Fleets of special refrigerated scissor­-lift catering trucks then scoot around the airport, speeding your meal to the plane in the little trolleys that are then loaded and locked into the galley kitchens. If it’s a full meal with a hot dish, those little racks of hot dishes are loaded into the ovens — sometimes even before takeoff — to heat through before being popped onto the trolleys and wheeled down the aisle by your flight attendant, at which point you discover what excitement (or sometimes disappointment) is on offer.

The end of a meal on an airplane. Image by David Madison/Getty Images

“The rotation of our in-flight menus depends on the length of specific routes as well as the cabin class with Business Class menus on our regional flights being rotated fortnightly to give our most frequent customers more variety, while Economy Class menus change every month,” says Hong Kong Airlines’ Chris Birt. “On our long-­haul services, both Business Class and Economy Class menus are rotated on a monthly basis.”

Most airlines will try to bring a flavour of home with them, whether to attract international passengers or to remind home market travellers of their roots, while still balancing a range of options of dishes that have wider appeal. “Wherever we are flying from, we try to offer a taste of Hong Kong as well as dishes from the country of origin,” Birt says. “For example, when we launched flights to Korea a few years ago, our team in Korea worked alongside the team in Hong Kong to ensure that menus on these flights were as authentic as possible.”

Bon appétit!

John Walton is an international aviation journalist, follow him @thatjohn