General aviation food packaging is our collective nemesis. As a boutique caterer for aviation, one of my most challenging aspects is to find packaging that fits on board an aircraft that looks and feels as though it belongs there.
I admit there is some rather ugly packaging out there – packaging intended for take away catering, but not designed to fit into the confines of small galley storage area nor is it constructed to efficiently use the space allotted for food storage on board. Most of you probably know that your catering source has a very limited number of options for packing your orders. I have seen packaging that wouldn’t fit through the aircraft door – seriously where do these food providers find this stuff?
What packaging do you need and require for your flight and in your galley? Mission specific packaging? Do you insist on your order being placed in . . . dome lids- 18” trays, huge boxes that stand taller than the club chairs, sharp objects that can become dangerous flying projectiles?
Should there be a difference between what is used for the passenger and that used for the crews?; What percentage of the cost of the catering bill is packaging?; Does packaging actually affect the cost of the catering?; Can you save money on catering based on how you request packaging?; Do you have a preference to how your catering is packaged?; Is your packaging environmentally friendly? . . . Styro-foam?
Styrofoam is the most widely accepted packaging across the board because it is efficient, cheap and readily available. Do you prefer plastic, wood, bamboo, glass, china or metal? Does your packaging need to be broken down for space issues on board? This is the most common reason.
Has anyone considered these items from the boutique aviation caterer?
The list of questions is endless. Not to mention compounding this packaging nightmare, no two galleys are standard. Each type of airframe can have many different galley designs and configurations causing you to have different size ovens needing different pans, microwaves of varying sizes and interior heights preventing the equipment from working. Galley designs may also be affected by the range of the aircraft. Since we are now able to fly around the world carrying larger loads of passengers and serving multiple meals, packaging needs to be looked at more seriously? Caterers find this to be one of our most challenging requirements of doing our job and pleasing the passenger and crew.
Here are my thoughts of what we should provide to you, our customer:
At the top of our list is space saving. It must be compact, all the food must fit in the galley and adjacent cabinetry. Remember that storing food may not always be in an “acceptable” place, i.e. the baggage compartment or adjacent closet.
When possible, glass should be shatter- resistant to preclude cuts and injury during turbulence. Non shatter- resistant glass might also cause breakage or injury during cleaning, offloading and loading of catering. Avoid round containers since their shape drastically reduces storage space. Glass should be light in weight for its size. Excessively heavy, thick platters need not be considered. They should be square or rectangular, not to exceed 14 inches in any direction, preferably less. Glass is good for the environment since it can be reused over and over, whether in its original form or reformed into something else . . . up cycling.
Plastics seem to have taken over the packaging market. One can locate anything in plastic. Plastic from petroleum and Plastic-like containers are made from almost anything – made from vegetables, sugar cane , fallen leaves and corn flour. Some is biodegradable, others are not. Caution! Avoid dome lids since they take up a great deal of space, and leave considerable extra packaging waste when you complete the mission. As you work with your food provider, you will find a great deal of difference in the sturdiness of the plastic and variations in the lids that seal the containers. The lids should be locking or screw top so they do not burst or leak (causing cross contamination) when opened at altitude.
Wood and Bamboo are sustainable, biodegradable, compostable and have an excellent life cycle assessment. Its disadvantage is that wet foods not properly presented may soak through unsealed platters and plates causing damage to the tables on board if not properly handled. Recently, I have seen some incredible platters, plates and bowls made of bamboo that are a treat for your eyes. Because they can be recycled and are made from a sustainable product, they are environmentally friendly. Remember the same cautions apply concerning the shape and sizes.
Metal must be food safe. Not all metal is food safe. Some metal trays are made specifically for decorative purposes and not to hold food. We frequently see some discarded trays come through the kitchen, from off loaded catering, that have actually rusted because they had something wet presented on them. Trays should have rolled edges that go around and into themselves to completely prevent hands or fingers from being sliced. There are many trays, stamped out of a sheet of metal, with very sharp edges. In my opinion, these should be banned for safety reasons. Many manufacturers are selling a very poor metal product very cheaply, so don’t be fooled. All metal is not created equal. Refuse to accept the cheapest tray on the market. Remember quality pays in the long run. Again, the trays should be square or rectangular in shape, the size should not exceed 14” at the maximum, and they should not have a dome lid. If they are food safe and do not rust, then they can be reused.
Foil oven containers should ideally have a foil lid and not a foil covered paper lid. Unfortunately many pan sizes by many different manufacturers do not make the foil lid. They are difficult to find, but, well worth the effort. Paper lids present a fire hazard in the oven. They should seal to prevent juices from coming out of the container to eliminate the possibility of cross contamination of food juices and sauces which can carry a food borne illness to everything the liquid comes in contact with. Sizes for oven tins are important to consider. How big is the on board oven? Remember the Catering Safety Management System and your food safety about the possibility of contamination each time the food is handled.
There are also different laws globally for “safe food handling” practices. Country and individual interpretation and expectations could be vastly different. The majority of caterers acquire their containers from many different sources. Up until the last few months, we have had to source our catering supplies from over 30 different companies . . . now that is a challenge. The problem we encountered was the sheer volume we had to purchase of an item and the outrageous costs due to minimums and shipping charges we would incur in procuring and storing them. Is it no wonder that many caterers do not have the selection of packaging because of space limitations, money and time to find so many packaging ideas without a full time employee assigned to this task.
When we cater to aircraft fly out of our region, let’s say the Middle East, the flight attendant or charter operator orders catering they will ask for small, medium and/or large foils. What size is each foil? This could turn your catering order into a mishmash of disaster, especially if they are not aware of the terms, sizes and special needs of the aircraft.
A few years ago, I invited a group of packaging manufacturers to meet with caterers at one of our convention meetings (We always have a group meeting of caterers attending the NBAA, EBACE, etc., conferences) in order to discuss the possibility of working together to create items specifically for aviation. The end result was that we managed to convince a manufacturer to produce an inexpensive plastic box lunch with a tear away lid so it could be removed and not interfere with the glare shield in the cockpit, in addition a reinforced base so it could rest on a flight crew member’s lap. Wouldn’t it be great to work hand in hand with OEM’s, packaging companies, galley equipment companies to create packaging just for an aircraft? We are in the service industry, we WANT and NEED to satisfy our clients. That makes good business sense.
Disposable packaging for general aviation has not seen a great deal of new styles with innovative design in years. It is time for a change. There is a new company that has done just that! As a caterer and aviation food source to the industry, I am thrilled to locate a company that has pulled all of the potential vendors into one location, allowing me to order partial cases so that I do not need the additional expense associated with procuring, shipping and storing massive amounts of supplies. They specialize in general aviation packaging for all types of airframes and all types of galleys and are working with manufacturers to create new, lightweight, shatter resistant space saving items for the aircraft galley that are sleek enough to be served to passengers. And yes, I do think all of those we serve deserve the best in quality, design and functionality . . . whether passenger or crew.