INDUSTRY INSIGHTS: The evolution of the inflight catering experience

AVB catches up with Linda Celestin, vice president, Guest Services and Guest Experience, Etihad Airways
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Linda Celestin, vice president Guest Services and Guest Experience, Etihad Airways
Linda Celestin, vice president Guest Services and Guest Experience, Etihad Airways

AVB: Could you start by breaking down the size of your catering operation?

Linda Celestino: Etihad Airways’ catering facility is 25,000 sqm spread across two sites located at Sky City and the main facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Our team of chefs and catering staff is 2300 strong and together we produce around 60,000 meals per day, with a production capacity up to 90,000 meals per day. In addition to our inflight operation, the facility provides catering to events, restaurants and hospitality establishments throughout the country.

Interestingly, we operate a huge fleet of 150 high-loaders which enables us to manage the three main peaks at Abu Dhabi International airport which are typically from midnight to 3am, 8am to 10am and 8pm to 10pm. This is a significant operation and our facility operates 24 hours a day and 7 days per week.

Etihad Catering produces a wide variety of hot and cold meals in numerous themed cuisines, and features its own butchery, pastry and bakery departments.

We make an extensive range of specialist Arabic cuisine which is served both onboard and supplied to hospitality locations throughout the UAE, which includes traditional kibbeh, vine leaf rolls and humous. Likewise, we produce several varieties of cold cuts and a wide range of beef, chicken and veal sausages inhouse.  International specialities including sushi and dim sum are also handmade inhouse and served to Etihad’s guests onboard.

We are proud recipients of the QSAI Silver Award for Europe, Middle East and Africa for 2018 which is independently judged through an audit of more than 200 global airline caterers.

AVB: What have you done over the past year to improve the capabilities of your catering division? Have you expanded your facilities at all?

LC: We are continually improving and innovating throughout the entire business and the catering division is no exception. Over recent years we have made huge changes to enhance the guest offering. The operation has generally moved away from automated procedures and towards fresh, seasonal ingredients and whole cuts of meat which are prepared and assembled by hand.

We are currently expanding our in-house bakery facility to increase the output of the operation which currently produces approximately 150,000 bakery items per day.

AVB: How has Etihad Airways’ inflight menu evolved over the past couple of years? Are there any specialised cuisines that you have introduced, or plan to introduce?

LC: Guests in The Residence are invited to pre-order their desired food. Orders often include requests for rare wines and unique foods from specialist burgers to Russian caviar.

Etihad’s premium First and Business class cabins offer a ‘dine any time’ experience onboard. In First class, food is prepared onboard by our inflight chefs who are fully-qualified and internationally trained. They create an individual dining experience at 35,000 feet, and guests can enjoy such treats as caviar with the traditional accompaniments. The dining experience for our Business class guests is managed inflight by our team of F&B Managers who will prepare an exceptional dining experience.

This year, we have relaunched our Economy dining experience with a wide variety of new dishes on the menu. Here is a sample list of the new main courses:

•           Herb marinated chicken breast, creamy cheese polenta and pepperonata

•           Slow braised beef with herb bread dumplings, red cabbage and green peas

•           Chicken breast in honey mustard marinade, herb mash potato, roasted carrots

•           Traditional Emirati Lamb boukhari, fried onions, raisins and cashew

•           Pumpkin ravioli, pesto cream sauce, roasted pumpkin, Parmesan and toasted pine seeds

•           Korean BBQ chicken, steamed rice and bok choy

•           Chicken teriyaki, edamame and toasted sesame seeds

•           Sweet and sour chicken with egg fried rice

•           Rigatoni pasta with herb tomato sauce, mixed olives and feta 

In addition, we produce 17 types of IATA approved special meals, from gluten-free to vegan and low salt meals to suit individual requirements.

AVB: What is Etihad’s approach to recruitment for your catering staff? Beyond employment, how do you continue to advance the skillset of your teams?

LC: Etihad Catering attracts a multi-cultural workforce from 39 countries across the world. We take recruitment seriously to ensure we develop a diverse skillset able to produce authentic cuisine from across the world, across all cabins and with a particular destination focus.

Throughout the organisation we believe in fostering a culture of continual learning and development, through internal training programmes, mentorship and the Leadership Journey programme for our managers.

AVB: How do you expect your catering operations will change over the coming years?

LC: The opening of Midfield Terminal will be an exciting development for Etihad Catering and will significantly impact our operation. The incredible airport terminal is substantially greater in size and we are preparing for the change in our logistics management.

A few other exciting initiatives in the catering division will continue in coming years.

In Ramadan 2018, we launched a meal donation programme with Emirates Red Crescent which sees approximately 400 meals per day donated to people in need within Abu Dhabi.

Our collaboration with the Department of Health brings the Weqaya health initiative to Etihad. We introduced a range of healthy food items on board our aircraft, guest lounges, and staff restaurants, in line with changing customer demand for health-conscious food choices.

In terms of safety, Etihad Catering operates an inhouse ISO accredited laboratory with a team of microbiologists who perform a range of tests for our Abu Dhabi facility, as well as water and food testing for our outstations.

We’re excited about the changes ahead of us and look forward to bringing our spirit of innovation to constantly evolve our catering operation and inflight dining experience for our guests.

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