Food on the Fly

 - January 11, 2008, 10:23 AM

Among flight attendants, flight crews and schedulers and dispatchers, not to mention passengers, few subjects today are likely to elicit more heated discussion than the business aviation catering industry. The conversations generally cover the same issues: allegations of price gouging, the growing practice by FBOs of charging a handling fee for catering, worries about security and concerns over food safety.

It is only in the past two decades that caterers have emerged to exclusively, or primarily, serve the needs of business aviation travelers. There are currently several dozen larger catering companies of this type in the U.S., most of them serving clients at airports in major metropolitan areas. Unlike restaurants and caterers for events such as weddings and conventions, business aviation catering is of necessity a labor-intensive service providing very high-end cuisine to very demanding clients.

Most aviation caterers maintain kitchens that are open 24/7/365, and the overhead is considerable, from the finest in kitchen equipment to refrigerated delivery vans to pantry storage for consumables. The inventory may include everything from exotic fruits to expensive wines and champagnes. The menus not only offer local specialty items but also accommodate ethnic and religious requirements.

Those in the business aviation industry most intimately associated with the caterers are flight attendants, schedulers and dispatchers and pilots. Of these, flight attendants are perhaps most aware of what caterers are providing and what they are charging for it, and for good reason. Flight department and charter operators typically require even full-time flight attendants to pay out-of-pocket for catering, for reimbursement later. It is not unusual for a flight attendant, on a week-long assignment carrying half a dozen passengers to a variety of cities in the U.S. and abroad, to absorb catering bills well in excess of $10,000. “It may not seem like a lot of money considering the direct operating cost of a Gulfstream is about $6,000 an hour,” said one flight attendant.

“But for a flight attendant using a personal credit card, it is a huge amount, and we’re well aware of what catering costs.”

Those costs have come under increasing scrutiny, not only by flight attendants but by the aircraft operators as well. One charter operator, shocked at an invoice that listed whole limes at $2 apiece and a quart container of orange juice at $9.50, has ordered its crews to purchase such items at local supermarkets before departure.
Last year, an operator going to the Augusta Masters golf tournament ordered a case of soft drinks from a caterer and was billed $48.

A fruit tray and a cheese tray for seven passengers came to $439. He told AIN that, as a result, for the remainder of the tournament the crew catered both legs of the flight from the company’s home base.

“We had a pilot en route to Aspen who called ahead and asked the FBO to contact a caterer to deliver a case of water and almost fell over when he arrived and was presented with a bill for $60,” said a contract flight attendant. “He refused to pay it and sent the water back. I’ve personally seen invoices with charges of $6 for a single lemon, $12 for a six-pack of Coke, and $30 for a case of 24 twelve-ounce bottles of Evian [water].”

“There will always be complaints about pricing,” said Joe Celentano, co-owner of Rudy’s Inflight Catering at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport. “The real issue is whether or not the product and the service justify the pricing.”

Justifying Masters’ Catering Prices
Ed Johnson of Masters Week Catering at Augusta Regional Airport responded specifically to the complaint of price gouging leveled by the operator who was billed $48 for the case of soft drinks. “I’m that caterer,” he told AIN. “Paying $2 a drink is not outrageous. Here you have a pilot flying a $30 million airplane to one of golf’s greatest events (and by the way, the ‘street value’ of a ticket for the Masters was in excess of $5,000) and he’s yelling about paying two bucks for a soft drink?”

As for the $439 charged for one fruit tray and one cheese tray for seven passengers, Johnson offered to go back and look at the invoice to see “exactly what he ordered and what he was charged.” He added that, provided there were no special requests, such as exotic fruits or cheeses, “the cost should be less than half that amount, much less.”

Johnson also pointed out that for such special events, a caterer is obliged to hire “a tremendous number of extra people” to meet the demands of hundreds of airplanes arriving and departing every day throughout the week of the tournament. “It is not cheap to put together a team that can handle all of this. But to offer our guests anything less would be inconsistent with the fine traditions of this great event.”

Labor is anywhere from 40- to 50 percent of the cost of operating a catering business, said Guy Smith, corporate chef and president of Arlington, Va.-based Air Culinaire. “We might do with fewer employees, but not if we’re going to be available 24 hours a day and able to react on short notice.”

Communication is crucial to keeping down the cost of catering, said Janie Cook, director of sales and marketing at Los Angeles-based Air Gourmet. When placing an order, said Cook, a good caterer will ask as many questions as asked by the person placing the order. “They won’t just ask how many people are being served. They’ll want to know everything from the duration of the flight to any budget constraints. The more information you can give the caterer, the better are the chances of reducing the cost of the catering.”

Cook also noted that, almost without exception, last-minute, off-the-menu special requests will be major budget breakers. Preparation of items such as sushi and California rolls, now highly popular on most caterers’ menus, are not only labor intensive, but they must be prepared just hours in advance of serving and require careful handling and storage to prevent spoilage.

To ensure that raw fish dishes are prepared properly and kept fresh, Rudy’s Inflight Catering uses a contract chef whose specialty is sushi and California rolls. “When we get an order, we call him. He comes in, all the freshest ingredients are ready, and he prepares everything just an hour or two before the flight is scheduled to depart,” Celentano said.

Erica Sheward of Castle Kitchens recalls a recent episode in which a U.S. caterer telephoned the London-based kitchen, “desperate to find a recipe for authentic English scones.” Sheward recalls talking with him again later and being told that it had taken them seven attempts to come up with scones that met their standards and those of the client. “In the end they cost the customer $12 per scone,” said Sheward. “But that was what the customer wanted, and he was willing to pay for them.”

She cautioned against ordering items that are out of season or not local. “If cost is a concern, don’t order lobster from us,” she said. “We’ll be flying them in from Canada!”

Sheward is blunt in defending Castle Kitchens’ pricing: “We have a massive facility that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, all at the customer’s convenience. But on the other hand, you have the assurance that what we deliver is what you wanted, it’s of the quality you expect and all the preparation, handling and delivery meet the highest food safety standards.” Castle Kitchens is accredited by the Royal Institute of Public Health.

Those concerned with pricing may be relieved to hear that caterers do not foresee any major increases in the near future. “Rudy’s is pretty much holding the line,” said Celentano. “There may be some increases, but most will be to meet the rising cost of packaging materials, and the rising cost of delivery as fuel prices increase.”
Air Culinaire’s Smith agreed: “I don’t foresee any substantial increases in pricing this year.

FBOs in the Food Chain
“If there is price gouging, it’s the FBOs that are responsible,” said Susan Friedenberg, president of Corporate Flight Attendant Training and vice chair of the NBAA Flight Attendant Committee. She noted that some FBOs are tacking on a 20-percent handling charge for catering orders placed through their desk. “It’s growing, and it’s unacceptable,” she said.

While the practice is widespread, it is not consistent. Handling surcharges for placing a catering order, storing it in the FBO’s refrigerator and delivering it to the airplane range from 10- to 20 percent. There have been some reports of handling charges as high as 25 percent. Some FBOs have formal arrangements with one or more catering companies, and the percentage may differ, depending on which caterer is used.

Others charge a flat fee for allowing the caterer to deliver orders directly to an airplane, and will go so far as to track arrivals of orders and the tail numbers of the airplanes to which orders are delivered. “If they don’t see a copy of the invoice with a check, they will ban that caterer from the FBO facility,” said Friedenberg. “This has resulted in cases in which operators will place an order and have the crew meet the delivery van outside the facility and bring everything to the airplane.”

One of the more interesting approaches to the handling of catering by an FBO is at San Diego Lindbergh Field. Jimsair Aviation, the only FBO on the field, offers catering exclusively through its own Lindy’s Gourmet Inflight Catering facility. The FBO not only refuses to handle orders for other caterers, but has a policy of not allowing them access to aircraft through the facility. The FBO will, for a fee, order from a local restaurant, but not from a competing caterer.

It is a policy that has some business aircraft crews not only angry, but wondering at press time whether the FBO would be able to handle the additional catering demand expected to come with the increase in traffic during Super Bowl XXXVII, scheduled for January 26 in San Diego. A spokesman for the FBO said visitors should not be concerned and that the kitchen would have no trouble providing catering for aircraft visiting during the National Football League event. While a spokesman for fractional operator Flexjet admitted that Lindbergh would not be the preferred airport for its share owners, he would not confirm reports from several sources that Jimsair’s catering policy was the reason.

“The point is not whether they can or can’t handle the increased traffic during Super Bowl,” said a contract flight attendant. “The point is that they’re not providing a service that every other FBO provides year-round, and if they insist on continuing, business aircraft operators will simply use another airport when visiting San Diego.”

Even now, she said, crews visiting Lindbergh Field are often ordering catering from Air Gourmet or Mireille’s Inflight Caterers and meeting the delivery van in the parking lot outside the Jimsair FBO or at their hotel before departure.

According to Castle Kitchens’ Sheward, FBO handling charges have gotten “completely out of hand.” She described a Christmas Day catering request billed by Castle Kitchens at about £200 [$320]. The order, said Sheward, had come from the client to the trip planner, which passed it along to the FBO, which passed it along to Castle. “The FBO placed the order, so we billed them. They added a 25-percent handling charge, in addition to a VAT charge of 17.5 percent of the handling charge, and billed the trip planner. Then the trip planner got the bill and added its own 15-percent handling fee. The client got a bill for £286 [$458]. And of course he didn’t complain to the trip planner or the FBO. He called us, didn’t he?”

What is Sheward’s advice? “Don’t go through the FBO. Call the caterer direct.” And she also suggested, “Most corporate jet captains have a MultiService credit card. Pay for the catering with the card. We accept it and the interest rate is lower than with a regular credit card.” And she added with a laugh, “The caterer gets paid in about two weeks.”

Jenny Showalter, customer-service manager at Showalter Flying Service at Executive Airport in Orlando, Fla., offers a reasoned defense of FBO handling charges. “My job,” she said, “is not to keep the caterer in business. If we’re going to place an order, confirm that it is what was ordered when it arrives, hold it here in our refrigerator and have our line crews deliver it to the airplane, then we’ve assumed a level of responsibility for that order, and it’s reasonable to add a handling charge.”

She said Showalter’s agreements with local caterers vary, but in general it represented a percentage of the cost of the order (she declined to reveal the typical percentage). “We considered a flat fee, but decided that a flat fee of $15 for delivery of a $20 box lunch didn’t seem reasonable. And it didn’t seem reasonable either to charge $15 for handling a $1,500 order.”

Air Culinaire’s Smith admitted, “A lot of caterers are bucking the system. In fairness, the FBO does incur some costs in handling an order. The real question is whether or not the fees are reasonable.”

Since 9/11, airport security has become a major issue, and many caterers have taken it no less seriously than have the FBOs. Despite the elevated awareness, however, there are still some FBOs that allow caterers through the gate with nothing more than a cursory glance at the name on the side of the van.

For its part, Cook said Air Gourmet’s trucks are well marked, its people are uniformed and orders are boxed and sealed.

Air Culinaire has adopted a tamper-proof container and labels each with the name of the company and the date on which the order was prepared. To keep track of its delivery vans, Air Culinaire provides each driver with a short-wave radio-capable cellphone.

Air Chef CEO Scott Liston said all of his company’s members must purchase from recognized vendors and must maintain appropriate paperwork and documentation. Within the facilities, Air Chef member refrigeration units must be within the line-of-sight of employees or within sight of a security monitor. Air Chef also requires all orders to be sealed with a security sticker.

It has become standard procedure for caterers to require complete security background checks for all employees. Background checks of Rudy’s employees, for example, are done by the New Jersey State Police.

Rudy’s, in fact, has taken the matter of security a step beyond most caterers with the installation of GPS tracking devices on all its delivery vehicles. If the vehicle stops for a significant period of time en route, the monitoring company immediately alerts Rudy’s so it can be determined whether it was an authorized stop and if security has been compromised. When the company recently added 1,000 sq ft of space, the expansion included 18 camera monitors throughout the building, operating on a 24-hour continuous loop. “And we keep the tapes for our files,” said Celentano.

He also noted that in the past it was not unusual for a flight crew to call from the airport and ask for a tour of the facility, “and that was all it took.” Now Rudy’s frequently contacts the company employing the flight crew to confirm their identities, and they must show ID and sign in before being escorted into the building. “We also warn our employees not to talk to anyone about what we do and who we do it for,” said Celentano.

Safety in Food Handling

Castle Kitchens’ Sheward is known for her outspoken advocacy of safety in food handling, not only by those in her employ but by anyone in the industry, including FBOs, pilots and flight attendants.

“A lot of people in this industry don’t realize that anybody who accepted money for catering, including the scheduler or dispatcher who selected the caterer, assumes liability for the safe handling of the order,” she said. Food contamination is not something to be taken lightly, she added, noting that there was a recent incident following a business charter flight in which about two-thirds of a World Wrestling Entertainment team became ill from food poisoning.

For that reason, Castle refuses to leave its orders with a third party, “anytime or anywhere.”

Sheward also pointed out that a claim of being a HACCP-approved kitchen does not necessarily ensure safety in food handling. HACCP, meaning “hazard analysis and critical control point,” is a USDA food safety program administered by state and local governments, but Sheward notes that the HACCP standards for setting control measures at critical points in the food-preparation process are primarily applicable to restaurants. “Too many caterers are using an HACCP plan that is appropriate only if you’re taking the meal directly from the kitchen and plunking it down 30 seconds later in front of the customer.”

Castle Kitchens’ concern for food-handling safety extends to a one-day training course, “In-flight Food Safety: Passenger Health and You.” The next course is scheduled for February 17 at Long Beach, Calif. For flight departments, Castle also offers a “Food Safety Flight Department Risk Assessment” course.

While other caterers do not offer such formal training, many, such as Air Gourmet, will provide an afternoon training session with regard to food handling and preparation.

Janie Cook recommends that customers make every effort to visit the facilities of the caterers they use, and while there “ask to see their health certificate and ask for proof of insurance.”

While quality cuisine delivered on time is the primary concern when dealing with a caterer, many flight attendants point out that there are other considerations. Not the least of these is the ability of a caterer to provide a dishwashing service and linen laundry. Some caterers will not only clean the dishes, crystal and silverware, but will deliver the order already served on the aircraft’s dishes. And many caterers carry a number of cabin necessities to replace lost or broken items–everything from wine openers to replacement table settings and linens.

Air Chef: Creating the Catering Franchise
One of the more interesting developments in business aviation catering has been the Air Chef Enterprise System, which Liston describes, albeit reluctantly, as a franchise.
It began about two years ago when Liston and company president Paul Schweizer began developing a string of Air Chef-approved members. “We worked backward from the passenger environment to develop an Air Chef menu of some 300 items,” said Liston. Each item on the menu is created by an executive chef with experience in aviation cuisine–a chef who was aware of the changes in foods and the sense of taste in a pressurized cabin.

Air Chef has its own kitchens but also identifies and evaluates catering companies that wish to become members of the Air Chef system. It subsequently licenses them as Air Chef suppliers in a particular market. The process includes Air Chef training at its Dallas facility, and then an initial five- to seven-day launch period under the watchful eye of one of the company’s three executive chefs. The system now includes approved kitchens at 15 locations, all providing items from the Air Chef menu. Another 20 locations are expected to be added this year. According to Liston, there are also plans to move abroad, “Most likely in Canada and Mexico, but we’re pursuing locations in western Europe as well.”

Among its initial successes is an agreement with major fractional-ownership provider Flexjet. “Most people flying in corporate aircraft know that catered meals are not consistent from one city to another, even filet mignon,” said Flexjet director of marketing Steve Phillips. “So we worked with Air Chef to develop a list of preferred caterers so that any menu item will be of a consistently high quality.” Phillips said the Air Chef menu is now available at “all our top-100 preferred destinations in the country, and it’s expanding.”

But is such a franchise program good news for those doing the ordering and for those in the cabin doing the eating?

There are some disturbing aspects to it, according to Eric Pevar, a principal at Mireilles Inflight Caterers in Lakewood, Calif. “There is a question of accountability with regard to both food safety and quality.”

“It’s very much driven by fractional providers who want to standardize the entire package, including meals,” noted Sheward. “And it seems, from that point of view, to be mostly a means of controlling costs.”

“It may result in lower prices,” agreed Friedenberg, “but the question is whether it will also result in lower quality.”

Another development of interest to those who use business aviation catering services is The International Directory of Corporate Aviation Catering Services by World Aviation Link ( The 440-page book, first published last year, is available for $49.95. The Irvine, Calif.-based company plans to launch a second publication this year. Air Ambience will be a quarterly in-flight resources planning guide that will include information ranging from catering service and cabin accessories to cooking schools and menus. “It will be a very rich environment,” said CEO George Pitarra. World Aviation Link also includes in its services an online search-engine link from its Air Ambience Web site (www.ambience. com) for catering services. By keying in the airport designator, the user can call up a list of catering companies serving that particular destination.

Industry Expansion on Hold
It would appear that catering remains one of the healthier segments of business aviation, though with the exception of Air Chef’s efforts to add to its system, expansion plans are being considered cautiously.

Nevertheless, Air Culinaire, which opened a new kitchen at the Signature FBO in Memphis, Tenn., last September, expects to announce yet another opening at the NBAA Schedulers & Dispatcher’s Conference to be held early this month.

Celentano at Rudy’s told AIN that his catering service had been considering an expansion but has put plans on the back burner since 9/11 and the subsequent economic downturn.

In the meantime, catering is becoming a more clearly identified segment of the business aviation community, and its presence is growing at such NBAA events as the Schedulers & Dispatchers Conference, Flight Attendant Conference and annual convention.

“It is a visible and important part of business aviation,” said a flight attendant. “And not only are we becoming more aware of who does and who doesn’t do a good job, but so are our passengers.”