Flying and food often make a bad combination. For economy passengers in particular, food is usually feared rather than revered. Meanwhile, business and first class travellers now have extremely high expectations to match the rising prices they pay.
But there are exceptions. Indeed, Emirates Airline consistently scoops awards for best carrier in travel magazines, such as Business Traveller, CondÃƒÂ© Nast and Travel Weekly. It has a loyal clientele, particularly in business class, with many passengers pointing to the airline's in-flight entertainment (IFE) and food as the reasons for it popularity. Emirates' recipe for securing critical acclaim is simple: money.
At a time when high oil prices have hit the airline industry hard, causing many to cut back their in-flight services, Emirates has continued investing heavily in the latest IFE and finest foods. For some passengers, this spending spree has set Emirates Flight Catering apart from the rest.
Most airline passengers rarely think beyond whether the food is tasty or hard to swallow. It's likely few understand that in-flight catering is actually a lesson in logistics rather than cooking. Indeed, huge volumes of meals must be prepared and packaged in limited time to tight specifications. Those meals and all accompanying equipment must then be loaded onto the right plane at the right time. Given that all routes offer different meal services for each class - with long-haul flights requiring between 4.5 and 9.5 tons of catering equipment - there are several issues to deal with.
Bob Ferguson, senior vice president for aircraft catering at Emirates Flight Catering (EFC), is responsible for ensuring passengers on all aircraft are well fed. During the past 15 years, he has seen Emirates' flight catering business grow significantly. In 1992, Emirates received 11,000 meals daily from the flights catering business. Today, EFC produces between 68,000 and 86,000 meals, with a total capacity of 120,000 for the carrier. Emirates Airline is the flight kitchen's largest customer, although the company also supplies meals to several other established carriers.
At 69, Ferguson has the energy of a man half his age. He has been in airline catering most of his life, working under the wings of an aeroplane in the Falklands, serving the Queen of England and the US president on special flights, and travelling to more than 100 countries. His passion for the business and achieving the highest quality is boundless. Ferguson is equally enthusiastic about hiring the best chefs, no matter where he finds them.
Ferguson believes in promoting from within and is especially proud of the people he has nurtured through the business. They include Mamjit Sohal, the first female food product manager at Emirates, and several "tea boys" whom Ferguson developed into administrative assistants and flight stewards. "Success involves looking after your people," he says. Ferguson likes to monitor all aspects of the kitchen and often has food from several flights delivered to his office for quality checks.
The internal auditing process is handled by Emirates' food product managers, but Ferguson is keen to know what is happening with the food. Each item on the tray is weighed, tasted and photographed to make sure they match the exact specifications. With hundreds of meals to keep track of, this is a hugely complex job.
Despite the huge volume of meals, EFC's kitchens contain no bubbling vats or average quality produce. Indeed, the company prides itself on using the best ingredients for its in-flight meals. "We use beef tenderloin from Australia, while other airlines use Brazilian beef," Ferguson says. "We make our own chocolate decorations by hand, using Callebaut chocolate, while others use Felchlin.
We make everything ourselves except Arabic bread - even ice cream. You need to start with a very high quality because the food goes through several more [processes].
All Emirates Lounges feature a business centre with individual work stations, broadband and wireless LAN access. Emirates Airport Services' workers manage the lounge, while on-site chefs ensure passengers have a wide selection of food and beverages at all times. The dining area also offers a full bar service.
Signature touches consistent throughout all Emirates Lounges include on-site chefs, full bar service, Italian marble finishes, high quality leather and showers.
James Griffiths, vice president of Emirates Flight Kitchen, believes catering in such quantity is "cooking by the numbers", but adds the end product for first class passengers is similar to a restaurant. He also points to the large plates, as opposed to foil trays, as an example of how onboard catering has changed. Despite the catering business' rapid expansion, finding skilled chefs is no easy task. A general shortage and flight catering's limited appeal makes it difficult to bolster the ranks.
But Griffiths relishes the challenge of increasing the workforce. The senior executive also enjoys getting his hands dirty by swapping the business suit for the chef's overalls and, for example, cooking one ton of hammour on any given day.
Griffiths sources what he can locally, using Gulf fish and produce. But with such high volumes of ingredients, much of the food has to be shipped in. Emirates imports 180,000 cartons of food, dishes and other material each month.
Away from importing, Griffiths believes the reason why Emirates produces quality meals while other airlines struggle is simple. "We spend more money," he says. "We start with a higher quality and we add detail and style. It's the Arab culture and the Arab idea of hospitality; they want to do things big, have big portions bursting with generosity as it should be.
Emirates Airline's recent spending spree on in-flight catering is unsurprising, given its track record for heavy investment. In 2004, the airline spent US$150 million to buy the naming rights for a new 60,000-seat stadium, home to Arsenal FC.
It was the biggest sponsorship deal in British history. The airline has also ploughed millions into new aircraft, routes and holiday divisions, as well as the catering industry. "Emirates is cash-rich; they were willing to invest in high quality from the outset," Ferguson says.
Elsewhere, Emirates has extended its spending spree to catering equipment. Conel D'penha, catering manager for material planning and logistics, has recently developed a new meal service trolley for passengers flying in first and business classes.
"The old trolley required six steps to get it open," D'penha says. "We designed this one in-house to take only two steps and it's more efficient.
It's taken six months to develop the trolley, which was expected to be operating on Emirates' flights from last month. "More durability makes it cheaper in the long run," D'penha says. "Emirates has good management and good leaders; they work you hard and that's why we succeed." According to Ferguson, developing the company further in the coming months is the aim.
To that end, management is keen to increase the quality of food by working with hotels. Once partnerships are in place, EFC will offer new onboard dishes that suit all regional tastes. Whether these partnerships will be established in the coming months is uncertain. But in the meantime, Ferguson and the EFC management team will continue developing a company that attracts talented employees. "A lot of people come from other airlines and they bring the good things with them," Ferguson adds.
There is less bureaucracy and less legacy here. It is a young operation that is more energetic, and there is a buzz here.
The company's new catering facility, dedicated to Emirates Airlines' flights, is now fully operational. This facility has a design capacity of 115,000 meal tray set-ups each day and features high levels of automation, including an electric monorail system for transporting meal carts. The company also uses a bin conveyor belt, to transport equipment, as well as a waste disposal vacuum system that covers all areas of the building. The existing catering facility will remain operational for all other airline clients.
Emirates Flight Catering has recruited chefs experienced in every culinary tradition, from sushi on Japanese routes to curries for Indian sub-continent flights. In 2006, the company provided 22 million airline meals and was expected to have produced more than 25.5 million meals last year.