Demystifying the Art of the In-Flight Catering Order

demystifying inflight catering

If you are reading this article, then you have probably been surprised or disappointed by an in-flight catering order or two in your day. It can be difficult to stay focused when a mishap occurs. Time is of the essence when prepping for a flight, so resolving the issue usually involves a quick call to the caterer and some spirited conversation.

Catering mishaps are usually a two-way street. Like any good relationship, good communication is the key to getting things the way you want them. You must first have a clear understanding of what you want, how you want it, and your specifications and limitations. You must then communicate all of this clearly and concisely to your catering partner who is working with a clean slate. Good information can make the job easier for yourself and your caterer. In my experience as a corporate flight attendant, it takes five steps to place an effective in-flight catering order.

1.  Building the foundation of an in-flight catering order

Before you even think about food, know your aircraft. Even if you are a contract crew member, ask the pilots ahead of time for this information. Important points that will impact your order:

  • Seating configuration
  • Oven / microwave / chilling capacity and shelf sizes
  • Storage space
  • Prep method anticipated for each item

2.  Talking to “HAL”

Now you are ready to clearly articulate exactly what you need based on the above specifications. Remember “HAL” in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Great! Now, imagine you are talking to a computer. The result you get will only be as good as the information you give. The caterer has a variety of packaging choices and presentation options, so they won’t know what you need and what you are picturing unless you tell them.

Example Scenario and In-Flight Catering Order

You look at the caterer’s menu and see a cold seafood platter for an appetizer that looks just perfect. You decide to follow it up with a Caesar salad, and then a main course of grilled wild salmon with roasted vegetables and mushroom risotto. It’s all on their menu so you think you can just order it without any additional information, right? With some detail, you can make sure that dinner arrives at your aircraft packaged to make it easy for you to reheat effectively and quickly serve in-flight.

Detailed In-Flight Catering Order:

  • Seafood platter to serve 12, divided onto 3 glass platters to serve 4 each.
  • Caesar salad to serve 12, packaged bulk. Lettuce washed, wrapped in paper towel in Ziploc. Caesar, balsamic and olive oil dressings, bulk board in clearly-labeled screw-top containers.
  • Grilled wild salmon to serve 12, bulk board in oven containers to fit oven of ____ dimensions (or specify oven container size).
  • Mushroom risotto to serve 12, bulk board in oven container to fit above oven. (You may choose microwave for this and give size specs.)
  • Roasted vegetables bulk board in oven container to fit above oven.

Imagine receiving the seafood platter in the above order without specifying how it should be packaged. What you may receive is one giant seafood platter you can’t stow anywhere, and you have two or three seating groups on your aircraft. Not having the correct packaging strategy is time consuming and messy.

You will also notice that, in the sample order, the dressings remain in separate containers. This will ensure you aren’t surprised by soggy Caesar salads arriving pre-assembled.

The point is to tell your in-flight caterer what kind of container you need so you don’t have to reorganize everything once it is on the plane, or so you don’t get surprised by foods being in the wrong kind of container or the wrong size container for your aircraft.

Also, remember to bulk order for 1-3 more passengers than you are planning on, in case an extra passenger or two shows up or portions are not what you expected.

3.  Pulling together your in-flight catering delivery

Now that the in-flight caterer knows exactly what you want, spell out how you want it delivered. This can make your job much easier and just makes sense. You went over the type of containers you wanted each item in when you told the caterer what you wanted. Be sure to remind them to clearly label each container indicating contents, heating time and temperature.

If you are ordering multiple meals, make it clear that you want each meal in a separate box, clearly marked. Always keep safe food handling guidelines in mind when discussing packing. Be sure to mention that you want the food delivered chilled below 40 degrees. If you are on an extended mission and have limited chilling capacity, have food that will be used later layered with ice sheets or on dry ice, sealed and clearly marked. The safe storage time for food above 40 degrees is only four hours.

4.  Cabin amenities and other needs

Add in any other items you need at this point.

  • Crew meals
  • Flowers
  • Newspapers
  • Stock items (milk, lemons, limes, etc.)
  • Specialty items

Use a checklist to make sure you never forget to cover these items.

5.  Effective Communication: Write, Call, Write

This is the order of communication. Always. If the company does not list an email address to send your written request, call and get one. Never depend on the spoken word. Send an email with your detailed catering order, in list format, with the following information at the top:

  • Name, email, phone, hotel, room number
  • Tail number, Trip number, aircraft type, FBO, FBO address and phone, hangar
  • Delivery date
  • Delivery time (2 hours prior, plus traffic, etc.)
  • List each item you want in what container
  • Packaging instructions
  • Request written confirmation with pricing

Upon receipt of written confirmation, call and discuss each line item to confirm complete understanding. If you don’t receive confirmation in a timely manner, call the caterer. Go over any details unique to this situation. Adjust delivery time for traffic, construction, road closures, weather, etc. Make sure there is a clear understanding of any allergies or special dietary needs. This is the time to clear up any misunderstandings and establish your relationship.

As with any relationship, good communication is crucial. If you have carefully selected your caterer, you should get a good result if you put your share of effort into the relationship. They have all of the tools to help you shine, so give them what they need to do their job. It’s a lot like a good marriage, both parties have to try to make it work and communication is your best tool!


If you have any questions about this article, contact Carol Martin at

This is an article by guest author Carol Martin of Sit ‘n’ Stay Global, LLC. Carol is an industry expert in animal safety and care as it relates to business aircraft operations. Any thoughts expressed in this article are entirely Carol’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Air Culinaire Worldwide.

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