Trip Report: Tour of an airline catering facility

This past Friday I had the opportunity to tour an airline catering facility at SFO, along with about 40 other FlyerTalkers. It was fascinating, and I’ll most definitely look at airline food differently from now on, knowing how much work goes into it.

The tour started out with a visit to the conference room, where introductions took place and we were able to sample some UA meals. By “sample,” much to my surprise, they meant eat an entire international business class meal. I guess it was a good thing I didn’t have lunch, since it was filling.

It was a UA international business class meal, consisting of a salad, bread roll, a main course (choice between chicken and mahi mahi), and finally chocolate cheesecake. Meal orders were not taken by status, but instead in a Southwest-esque free for all fashion. 😉

It was actually really fun/funny to eat an airline meal on the ground, especially on a tray while sitting at a table. Nonetheless it was quite good, although for an international business meal not particularly impressive (which is UA’s fault, and not that of the airline catering facility, who did the best with the budget they have to work with, in my opinion).

During lunch we had a Q&A session, along with some info about the facility. It’s fascinating how huge of an operation they’re running, with a 135,000 square food facility and around 750 employees, if I recall correctly. We learned that a majority of the meals are prepared at night, during the “graveyard shift,” as well as the diverse nationality of chefs. They really seem to hire people from every corner of the world, especially when they’re working for a new, international airline.

Chicken and mahi mahi


Conference room where we had lunch

As we finished up lunch we were all given hair nets to wear while touring the food preparation area. They really seem to take cleanliness seriously, since everyone we crossed paths with looked like they were coming out of an operating room. When we went into the food preparation area we all had to wash our hands as well.

Storage room


Another impressive aspect of the whole operation was the storage area. They literally have tens of thousands of square feet of storage where they keep the materials of the airlines they service, from bottles of water, to buy on board snackboxes, to china, silverware, etc. It amazes me how they’re able to keep inventory of all this stuff.

Airline storage stuff

Since we were there midday, there wasn’t too much “cooking” going on, but there was plenty of food preparation going on. It’s amazing how they prepare for each flight. There’s a separate sign for most of the longhaul flights they service (at the very least), where they collect everything they need for that particular flight. The coolest part was that I saw the ladies that were placing the UA hot nuts in the containers. That was soooo awesome!

There was a bunch more stuff we saw including the freezer area (where people work all day in freezing temps just moving boxes), the area where they load the carts onto the trucks, etc. After about two hours we were brought back to the conference room for a final Q&A session.

The tour was so well done on the part of the airline catering facility and our host, so thanks so much to all that were involved in making this happen. Never again will I eat an airline meal without thinking twice about how much work has gone into making it, regardless of how simple the meal may appear.

  1. Did they should you how they prepare coach meals?

    Did they talk about the (presumably different) budgets that different airlines have for their meals?

  2. But we almost had to pry you away from the hot nuts being prepared! 😉

    They mentioned that airlines costed meals and in some circumstances they directed to the “point” of where to obtain supplies and what supplies to use in preparing a meal. No numbers were mentioned, but it was laid at the foot of the airlines – GG can only do what they’re given to do…

    Besides – we looked excellent in the hairnets 😀

  3. Oliver, didn’t specifically see how coach meals were made, since we seemed to be there during the quieter time of the day as far as preparation goes.

    As for the budgets, apparently the airlines tell the facility what kind of food they want and what quality, and then the facility will make the meal type and let the airline know the price.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed the tour. I can just imagine what the mad house it can be during the early morning hours to get all the meals to all the transpac flights leaving around mid-day and all the PS flights in the morning.

    This tour ranks up there with my Pan Am Airport hanger visit ( MIA) and Royal Carribean Cruise Line visit. Pan Am folded a month after my visit, and I have refused to go on any cruise after seeing how cruises are run from the perspective of a cruise line worker.

    I have a more positive feeling about GG tour, and will continue to enjoy their food.

  5. Interesting, UA_Flyer! Out of curiosity, was the tour done by RCL directly? If so, I’m surprised they’d have a tour which would portray the job of the cruise line workers negatively, as bad as it might be.

  6. The RCL tour was done by the RCL directly. I took a transportation management class as an MBA elective at U of Miami, and we did several tours including a tour of a cargo carrier and its operation (also involve airport security and custom) at MIA, RCL and others.

    The RCL tour was nothing negative. It was like spending a day at a restaurant kitchen and all the sudden you found yourself losing appetite. The RCL tour was done a few hours before the ship was ready to sail for its voyage to the Caribbean Sea. Our tour was a “back stage” tour not the front end. There were hundreds of workers working behind the scenes including covered in grease in the bottom of the engine room. Waiter/maid quarters look like refugee camp…

    It was a very interesting MBA elective class.

  7. Thank you for that amazing report and pictures. To answer the first comment, economy meals are frozen entrees that come in boxes.

  8. The cost of the meal is no longer the issue. The cost today is in the security of the facility, the 2nd security company to inspect the carts, the 3rd security unit to guard the carts after they are prepared…the 4th security unit to inspect and seal the truck, the 5th security inspection as the truck enters the airport (AOA area), the 6th security inspection to break the seals on the truck, etc. So, a business class meal on a NRT, HKG or FRA flight will be over $120 — with only about $30 for the meal.

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