Finland’s biggest kitchen makes 18,000 meals for flights every day. With the food is served one million bottles of wine a year, and the world’s best champagne. Catering’s most visible activity is providing in-flight meals, but it is also the source of all those fine bottles, jars and chocolates that are given as homecoming presents.
Catering to favourite tastes
A meal is an essential part of a flight. On Japanese flights, stylish sushi is served; on the Korean route, spicy bibimpap. On longer flights there is time to enjoy a more extensive menu. In business class up to three starters and main courses are offered.
“Each nationality values the fact that local tastes are catered for,” says Finnair Catering Vice President Kristiina Asplund.
Every new route opening creates a learning environment in Finnair’s kitchen. Catering’s chefs and cooks are harnessed to explore the myriad aspects of new cuisines under the guidance of local experts.
The challenges of flight food begin with the basics. For example, so simple a thing as cooking rice and its varieties is completely different in Finnair’s various Asian destinations.
“In Japan they use sticky rice, in India simmered basmati rice, and in Thailand fried rice is preferred,” explains Asplund.
Fine cuisine at altitude
Menus are planned with a panel of experts. Twice a year candidate meals are proposed and the menu for the coming timetable season selected. So that passengers that fly frequently on the same route receive some variety, each destination’s menu has a number meal options, which are rotated regularly.
The logistics chain for in-flight food is a long one. It sets special requirements for raw materials as well as transport and serving equipment. A portion might be made up to a day before it is served. It is also consumed in completely different conditions from where it is prepared – literally at 10 kilometres up.
“Our customers are all world’s nationalities, religious persuasions and age groups. The food must be universal, but at the same time tasty. This is about as challenging as cooking can get,” says Asplund.
Not to mention the passengers who have special diets or some food restriction.
“The number of special foods is always growing; they can account for up to ten per cent of the meals we prepare. To some destinations they may be ordered for nearly the entire aircraft, such as on Indian flights, where vegetable dishes are extremely popular.”
Always wide awake
The old labyrinthine Catering building gave way last spring to the terminal extension development of Helsinki-Vantaa. The total floor area of the new Catering building is nearly 14,000 square metres, i.e. equivalent to two football pitches. The freezer is the size of a three-room flat, i.e. 75 square metres, and the refrigeration space 760 square metres, i.e. the size of around three one-family houses.
Catering never sleeps. Flight meals are prepared 24 hours a day, all year round. A total of 18,000 meals are delivered daily to more than 200 flights operated by Finnair and many other airlines flying from Finland.
Environmental friendliness is emphasised at every work stage. Energy efficiency was part of the plans from the very beginning of the design of the new Catering building. Much was invested, particularly in sorting waste and saving energy and water.
Everything possible on flights is recycled. In the cabin, aluminium, glass and some plastic waste ends up back at Catering for reprocessing. On domestic flights, energy waste is also recovered. Finnair Catering Oy was one of the first, and is still one of the few, flight kitchens in the world to be awarded an ISO 14001 Environmental Certificate.
Every gram is important
Preparing for a long flight is no easy matter. Nothing can be forgotten, because stocking up at cruising altitude is not an option.
“For example, Catering supplies for one wide–bodied flight around 45,000 individual items, ranging from forks and knives to coffee cups and children’s toys as well as perfumes and sweets for sale,” says Asplund.
The machine that would do all of Catering’s work has not yet been invented, so manual work is invaluable. A significant part of the price of in-flight food consists of its transportation. Catering uses custom-made elevator vehicles. During the rush periods for traffic, every member of the 30-strong elevator vehicle fleet shuttles back and forth between the Catering building and the departure gates.
Carrying every gram across the sky costs money. Work aimed at optimising the weight of aircraft is never-ending. Serving dishes are always made out of the lightest possible manufacturing material. The amount of equipment is also kept under scrutiny.
“An aircraft might be in the air every day for up to 18 hours. It is easy to calculate how big a sum a weight reduction of one hundred kilos, for example, will save on fuel costs.”
A professional in three fields
Finnair Catering is actually a professional in three fields. Firstly, it is a huge logistics company, which orders vast amounts of raw materials, equipment and sales goods. Secondly, it is the biggest kitchen in Finland making airline food. Thirdly, it handles retail sales at the airport and on flights.
Finnair Catering employs 700 people, among whom are 30 nationalities. The Catering building echoes with a spectrum of languages, because the company is Finland’s most multicultural working community.
Air traffic is susceptible to disruption and flights are sometimes late. Punctuality is affected, among other things, by the weather, congestion at airports and movement of other traffic. One place, however, is always open when the airport has customers: the Finnair Shop.
“We extend our opening hours according to the flow of traffic whenever possible. For many customers, airport shopping is an important part of travelling,” explains Magnus Hannukainen, who is responsible for trading operations.
Although the tax-free system has ended in Europe, airport shop prices are still lower than in city centre stores.
On land and in the air
Sales are made on the ground, but also in the air. In-flight sales in particular are planned in cooperation with the cabin service department. It is usually part of the flight programme. In-flight sales are increasingly considered part of the service and an enjoyable flight. Passengers can select chocolates and gifts, for example, that they had no time to buy at the airport.
“For almost all of the return legs of international flights, passengers can take advantage of the pre-order bag service. For our customers, this is the easiest, trouble-free option of all; there’s no need to worry about awkward liquid rules or carrying the purchases on to the aircraft,” explains Hannukainen.
If, for some reason, there is no time during the flight, the Arrival Shop provides one last opportunity to remember to buy that important homecoming present.