What you never knew about your plane lunch
It's the smell from the bakery that hits me first. I'm standing in Australia's largest airline catering facility at Melbourne Airport and I'm suddenly extremely hungry.
The enormous 11,000sq m building has been opened by Alpha Flight Services and is the largest commercial kitchen in the southern hemisphere, capable of producing more than 750,000 airline meals a month.
But this is not how I expect airline food to look. I expect it to be frozen (wrong), and made from inedible ingredients (wrong again), and full of preservatives (I'm not used to being this wrong).
Instead, pallets of fresh fruit and vegetables are being unloaded, sorted and prepped for delivery and a team of chefs are precisely weighing and cooking up meals for airlines such as Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Australia.
Unlike the big airline names, you've probably never heard of Alpha Flight Services - the company behind many of the meals you eat on a plane. There are 500 staff here in the Melbourne facility and 1800 dotted around the country in the company's other kitchens. The Melbourne kitchen alone will produce 20,000 meals a day for different airlines.
It's a huge operation. Not bad for an Australian company that began servicing Ansett out of Tasmania in 1982, after the head of the airline liked the taste of the sandwiches from the local deli. The deli's owner, Peter Smith, went on to create Alpha.
"Consistency is No.1," says Brett Peipers, unit manager for Alpha for the last 12 years.
"You want to have high standards but you have to be consistent. You can't have one passenger sitting next to another whose meal looks different."
This tightly run operation is a logistical nightmare. Everything is made from scratch - croissants, curries, salads and desserts - meaning ingredients must be ordered precisely and deadlines are tight. A typical day could include the following staggering quantities:
8 pallets of fruit and vegetables
300kg diced chicken
200kg diced beef
1000 pieces of hoke fish
200 pieces of barramundi
1000 Movenpick ice creams of different flavours.
There are two commercial kitchens, halal and non-halal, four blast chillers to quickly bring the prepared food temperatures down ready for plating, a bakery offering more than 150 items and an entire section dedicated to washing up all the trays and cutlery that come back from a flight.
Watching the operation in action is mesmerising. There's a room with cooks who are dicing fruit for the salad bowls, another section where food portions are precisely weighed on scales and an area where the airline trays are loaded with meals in robotic precision.
Alpha Flight Services currently creates meals for more than 4000 flights a month, with capacity to increase this by half. The numbers are enormous.
"Food we've seen being cooked at 1.30pm is for flights leaving for 5pm tonight. You can't get anything quicker or fresher than that," says Peipers.
Add to this the huge increase in special meals.
"For example on a flight with 200 passengers, up to 40 to 45 per cent can be special meal requests. We now have a section that purely does special meals - gluten free, vegan, childrens, kosher," says Peipers.
Currently servicing 18 airlines, Emirates and Singapore Airlines are their biggest customers out of Melbourne. Emirates has four flights a day out of Tullamarine, three of which are on the huge A380s. Singapore Airlines has five flights per day, Cathay Pacific is also another big customer and the growing Asian market is having a huge impact on volume.
"China Southern started with three flights per week out of Melbourne, we're now up to 24 flights per week - there's been a massive growth in the Asian market," Peipers says.
Of course there's always last-minute emergencies.
"We usually have a final meal count for an aircraft six hours before departure however if a customer turns up at the airport and buys a ticket at the last minute we have to accommodate," says Peipers.
And then there's unforeseen events such as weather delays.
"A bad weather day can affect the whole airport and throw everything out of whack," says Peipers. If a flight is cancelled then the food is a write-off.
"Or sometimes we'll deliver food to the aircraft and they'll have a mechanical or crew issue so we'll have to recater if necessary," he says.
Every airline is different when it comes to meal requirements. Some want to offer a signature dish of the destination they are flying to, others differ in how much they spend on each meal, the size of their trays and whether they change their meal selection monthly or every second or third month.
The new building has been designed in almost army like formation. Food is delivered into cool rooms, before it is moved forward into prepping room, then forward again into the commercial kitchens, then forward to the airline carts for loading and finally onto trucks that take the food out to the aircraft.
Peipers says he's seen a move back to larger sized meals from airlines and bigger influences from celebrity chefs.
But back to that bakery, I wonder if they'll notice a missing pain au chocolat?