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Dinner is served: Part 2

In the October 2015 issue of Aircraft Cabin Management, Ian Harbison discovered how Alpha LSG prepared meals for its airline customers at its Heathrow facility. In this second part, he tracks the meals from kitchen to aircraft

The Alpha LSG Heathrow facility includes a 4,840m² Premium Kitchen based at Heston, about three miles from the main airport terminals. Here, meals are produced and prepared ready to be sent to the neighbouring Dynamic Logistics Centre. All the meals for a particular flight are consolidated into a single load, based on a galley plan provided by the customer. These are then combined with a complete shipset of crockery, cutlery, glassware and other items. After a security check by someone not involved in the assembly process, they are then loaded onto trucks and sent to the airport.


Emma Brock, LHR General Account Manager, explains that a complete shipset is used even if the aircraft is not completely full, as this avoids a build-up of surplus items at places on the airline’s network.


All trucks are security checked separately, then sealed and checked again by airport staff as they cross to airside. Brocksays security, an obvious necessity, takes a considerable amount of time, while road times to the terminals range from 25 to 45 minutes. This is important as the company works to a three hour window from dispatch to flight departure, with loading beginning 30 minutes earlier.


Inevitably, there are always operational delays. A recent foggy day in London saw fuel diversions as aircraft were held for long periods in the stack. As long as the food, which is blast chilled, stays below 8ºC, it can be held in storage until the flight is eventually ready. However, just like pilots, drivers can run out of duty time if the delays are very lengthy. Generally, with 30 customers to look after, priority is given to the aircraft that are operating on time. As noted before, demand fluctuates during the day according to airline schedules, but the company has a daily requirement in the morning to handle three Airbus A380s. Each aircraft needs four vehicles, which take up three loading bays. It is important to clear these flights on time to free up space for other departures.


There is a fleet of 63 hi-loaders, of which eight are Airbus A380 super hi-loaders able to reach the upper deck, plus 43 small vans. All of these are checked daily, with 10 in maintenance at any one time to ensure reliability and availability; this is not just automotive maintenance, as the hydraulic lifting systems also require care and attention. They are also fitted with trackers, which are useful for resolving disputes about ground services causing any delayed departures.


All manoeuvres are carried out with the assistance of a guide man to avoid damage to the aircraft or other ground vehicles. Brock says the catering vehicles are in competition with refuellers, cargo and baggage handlers and lavatory servicing for space around the aircraft. On board, there will usually be cleaners and maintenance personnel also competing for space.


Handling aircraft varying in size from A380s to Boeing 737s means that staff have to get used to different procedures. Furthermore, the aircraft doors from a particular manufacturer may be similar in operation, but differ in size and weight. Also, some airlines do not allow Alpha LSG staff to open the doors, so procedures can alter between customers as well. More importantly, the size and shape of the aircraft dictate the position of the vehicles. When the A380 arrived, it became apparent that the wing fairing prevented the vehicle from getting close enough to the fuselage; as such, an extendible bridge is necessary to reach the upper deck door, raising obvious safety concerns for personnel as well as potential damage to the aircraft from dropped items.



Once the vehicle is safely alongside and connected, the first procedure is to remove all the used catering trolleys from the aircraft. This means the new trolleys are stacked on one side of the vehicle when loaded to provide a clear area. Using the galley plan, which designates the location of each trolley, the loading process can begin. However, not every trolley needs to be removed – duty free generally stays on board – and Brock says cabin crew will occasionally put these in the wrong place. In addition to slowing down the process, there is a slight concern that this could have an effect on the weight and balance of the aircraft. Cabin crew can also operate different sectors on the same aircraft, meaning the location of supplies can change.


Each load operation is managed by an Alpha LSG Flight Co-ordinator, who is an expert on a particular range of airlines, and able to advise where the apparently missing cutlery is on a London flight, for example. There is actually a formal handover process involving a cross check with the cabin crew; this ensures that each galley has been catered to airline specification, and as per the airline order.


One of the most important checks requested by cabin crew is a full account of special meals, as this has a direct effect on passengers. In fact, feedback from cabin crew to the company can alter forward planning. The food for every flight is calculated on a probability basis and it may be that, over a month, passenger demand will see a change in the ratio of chicken to beef.


Recently, the company has been inviting check-in agents from its customer airlines to come and have a look at the operation. Brock says the idea is to illustrate what happens when something as 'simple' as a cabin upgrade is given to a passenger. This is particularly important for premium cabins – a passenger upgrade from business to first class may require up to 30 extra dishes to ensure that full service is delivered on board. This is not so much about expense, but more to make them aware of the time constraints the company faces, especially if the upgrade is made close to departure time. That being said, the company does run refrigerated ‘top up’ vans when necessary.


With everything loaded, the vehicle returns to the Dynamic Logistics Centre with the used catering equipment and waste. Everything is offloaded and thoroughly cleaned, including the trolleys. Any food waste is categorised as Class 1, which means it must be delivered in leak proof containers for incineration. This is to avoid the accidental importation of pests or infections from other countries that may be hazardous to UK agriculture.

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