Welcome to the largest airline catering facility on the planet – owned by Qantas partner Emirates and fittingly situated at its Dubai hub, in a city where big is the norm.
But it's not just a large building: Emirates' catering centre handles everything from receiving goods in bulk through to preparing, cooking and plating the airline's inflight food before the journey and then washing plates, cutlery and aircraft trolleys as these return to Dubai, ready to use again.
It's really a 'one stop shop' and cleverly incorporates a single-flow design to ensure that dirty dishes and new deliveries at one end of the facility don't ever come into contact with fresh food and clean flatware at the other.
Join Australian Business Traveller as we go behind the scenes at Dubai International Airport to see what most people never think about: how inflight meals make it from delivery truck to tray table.
Emirates flight catering: key stats
Occupying almost 60,000m² – roughly the size of 14.5 typical soccer fields joined end-to-end – Emirates' 9,500-strong catering team prepares meals for over 400 daily flights, including for 125 other airlines flying through Dubai via a second, separate building.
When combined, the two facilities average 163,000 airline meals a day, preparing dishes from a mind-boggling 1,524 separate menus to total 60 million individual meals each year, ranging from 15 million croissants to 3.6 tonnes of lobster.
Emirates flight catering: trolleys and trays
Our tour begins at what's really the 'end' of the journey, where dirty aircraft trolleys are delivered for emptying and washing after being used during a flight:
Trolleys are divided into food, beverages and duty-free, and are transported to the appropriate area by an automated monorail system: suspended from the ceiling and capable of moving 200 carts at any one time.
While computers can manage a good chunk of the process, workers still strip each trolley manually and keep an eye on the centre's overall throughput, including the hundreds of trolleys sitting idle.
Below we see everything calmly kept behind the yellow crisis line...
... but if that's crossed, it alerts that the output of the facility isn't matching the input of trolleys, or that you're entering an extreme peak period and need all hands on deck – such as the week before Christmas and the first week of the New Year.
Emirates flight catering: dish washing
Once removed from the food trolleys, used crockery and cutlery winds up in the dish washing section, where it's heavily steamed to remove residue and then cleaned thoroughly.
As with any industrial dish washer, everything is stacked neatly as it enter the machines:
This helps to ensure that dishes need to be washed only once – and when you're pumping through over 2.5 million pieces per day and close to one billion pieces per year in Dubai alone, time spent running plates and forks back to the start would quickly add up.
Instead, very clean plates emerge at the other end...
... while the shiny cutlery doesn't appear too shabby either:
Items are then grouped into trays: coffee cups with saucers, for example...
... and are then ready for their next destination, wherever that may be across the globe.
Emirates flight catering: storage
Progressing through the centre's single-flow layout we encounter a warehouse of non-perishable items just past the loading dock, in what the airline dubs its 'daily store'.
It literally needs to be refilled each and every day, else you'll wake the next morning with 70% of the stock having disappeared before your very eyes and you'll be lucky if what remains lasts until lunch time.
To maximise the available space, aisle widths are kept to a minimum and automated machines are used to retrieve goods from all heights:
The plastic boxes you can see are preferred by Emirates over traditional cardboard as we're told it reduces manual handling times by up to 50% per item, and can of course be used again and again without being shipped off to a recycling plant.
We also came across a separate, smaller storage room where the chocolate, wine and champagne are kept...
... but due to the deliciousness of these items, you'll need a special clearance to get anywhere near them:
Staff here prepare the inflight wines for each flight and load them into movable storage containers...
...which slot straight into the galley aboard Emirates' aircraft.
Emirates flight catering: food preparation
With clean dishes, food storage and bubbles behind us, we reach the first kitchen area – responsible for preparing everything that's chilled, and also presenting it as the customer will see on board.
The first thing we notice here is a round, tube-like object dangling over a number of the benches:
It's not a giant fluorescent flight – rather, it blows very cold air onto the bench tops and keeps chilled food within its ideal temperature range.
That minimises the chance of food poisoning and keeps everything as fresh as possible, without requiring that employees constantly rush to get items back into the fridge.
On these benches, everything is prepared to match the airline's 'gold standard', regarded as the perfect way to plate and present each dish...
... and ensures that every passenger on board ordering the same course will get the same thing:
That's as true for the fruit plate as it is for the cheese board...
... one of which was destined for and enjoyed on our flight home the following day:
Other individual items are too prepared here, such as olives...
... and in a different workspace, another employee readies the inflight business class breakfast trays, saving the crew time in the sky:
Emirates flight catering: hot kitchens
In the very heart of the operation stands a network of kitchens responsible for producing all of the yummy delights you'll find on the menu.
Among them, a Japanese kitchen focusses on sushi and sashimi while the Indian kitchen serves up everything you'd expect of a local restaurant...
... but on a much, much larger scale:
As we wander around, we also come across some impressive-looking mixing equipment...
... a deep fryer that would make Homer Simpson drool...
... a network of walk-in ovens...
... a dessert station where custard is piped by one employee and chocolate applied by another...
... and a room filled with freshly-baked pastries and the makings of pistachio macarons, in which we could have spent all day!
Once any hot food has been cooked – those macarons excluded, of course – staff can wheel it into a 'blast chiller' for a quick cool-down:
This again helps to keep food within its ideal temperature range and minimises the time spent transitioning from hot and cold.
It's then stored and packaged appropriately, ready to be loaded onto an Emirates flight and into an on-board oven by the cabin crew.
Staff can also keep an eye on flights throughout the day and can quickly see how many passengers are booked on each service, how many special meals have been requested and whether everything is set and ready to be loaded:
The screen also reveals an interesting fact – of all the flights displayed, none of the first class passengers had requested a special meal and only a handful of business class guests had done so: yet in economy, special meals were requested by every second passenger on several flights.
Included on this list was EK525 from Hyderabad to Dubai (on which catering is pre-loaded before the aircraft leaves Dubai on the previous flight) with 166 of 304 economy passengers ordering a special meal, along with 162 of 310 guests on EK513 from Delhi and 195 of 249 passengers on EK539 from Ahmedabad.
There are also secret 'special special' meals for the VVIP crowd that aren't on the regular menu and can be customised to their liking, such as a low-fat lamb biryani with more rice than meat, extra yoghurt and no onions:
But whatever the choice, meals are then loaded onto purpose-built trucks and driven straight to the waiting aircraft before take-off...
... and while there, staff also remove the trolleys, dirty plates and used cutlery from the previous flight – ready to start the whole cycle again.
Stay behind the scenes of aviation:
- Fires, escape slides and champagne: training Emirates' cabin crew
- The inner workings of the Airbus A380 factory...
- Photos: building Abu Dhabi Airport's new Midfield Terminal
- Take a ride in an Emirates Airbus A380 flight simulator!
- Designing your own Boeing 787 at the Dreamliner Gallery
- Photos: the Airbus A380's secret hangout zone for cabin crew
- Keeping an airline flying: inside Emirates' Network Control Centre
- Photo tour: inside Boeing's 787 Dreamliner factory
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Dubai as guest of Emirates.
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