In this Covid-19 environment, reputable catering kitchens, which have already been operating at the highest levels of food safety, represent your safest option for inflight catering, according to a recent NBAA webinar.

Coronavirus Spurs Catering Concerns

Best practices for inflight dining amid the pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, matters such as in-flight catering require even closer scrutiny than usual. That was the subject of a recent National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) webinar featuring John Detloff, vice presudebt of Air Culinaire Worldwide; Paula Kraft, founding partner of DaVinci Inflight Training Institute; and Shannon Weidekamp, chair of the NBAA’s Flight Attendant/Flight Technician Committee and lead flight attendant manager and director of client services for a Part 91 and 135 operator.

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“COVID-19 is going to change the whole industry and how we deal with food, and the training that should be mandatory when it comes to food safety,” said Detloff. “This virus will make all of our standards come up in food safety, cleaning, and sanitizing—and this goes in effect for the FBOs, flight departments, caterers, and anyone else who is thinking of serving onboard or handles food for business aviation.”

Kraft noted that, since the start of the pandemic, she has been receiving numerous inquiries from flight departments about how to conduct in-flight catering. “The key is to use a reputable caterer, train, and do your homework when it comes to food safety and where you are going to get that food,” she said. “There’s a lot that you as flight departments and operators and individuals need to know about before that food arrives to you.”

The Food and Drug Administration and local authorities regulate in-flight caterers, which already follow stringent guidelines to assure food safety. Enhanced protocols since the pandemic began include even more frequent sanitization of kitchens and refrigerated delivery vehicles with hospital-grade products; regularly scheduled alarms reminding workers to wash their hands and/or change their gloves; wiping down incoming and outgoing packaging with food-grade wipes; and limiting the number of workers in the kitchen at a time.

Kraft explained that in-flight catering kitchens employ a cook-to-chill protocol, where food is prepared and then swiftly cooled, using industrial blast chillers, to less than 41 degrees. It is then delivered to FBOs in specialized packaging in refrigerated vehicles.

While some business aviation operators and crews are using food brought from home or ordered from restaurants, those are not optimal choices, according to Kraft, as that food is prepared under the cook-to-serve regimen, meaning it is expected to be eaten as soon as it is prepared. Such food might never reach a safe storage temperature to prevent the growth of bacteria.

For third-party deliveries, one must also consider the food's handling by untrained individuals and the cleanliness of the delivery vehicle. The panelists noted that FBOs should have at least two sets of commercial-grade refrigerators to avoid cross-contamination—one for newly arrived catering and one for any catering that has been removed from the aircraft for storage. A separate refrigerator should be used for staff food, as well as for any leftover catering that is gifted to the line staff.

One trend that Air Culinaire’s Detloff noted is the double provisioning that companies are ordering for outbound flight crews. “They can take a meal back to their hotel and eat because all the restaurants are closed or they don’t want to take the liability or risk factor of having them go out and get exposed to [COVID-19],” he said. Weidekamp added that many caterers will also deliver crew meals to the FBO at the destination to help avoid this situation.

While most flight attendants take pride in offering professional meal presentations to passengers, presentation has taken somewhat of a back seat of late, according to Weidekamp. “Our policy in the current COVID-19 environment is we’re using paper and plastic,” she explained. “The caterers deliver food on wonderful trays and dishes themselves and you can have them plate there and just serve from the dishes, especially if it’s a cold item like a salad or a sandwich.” Not using fine dishware keeps the flight crew from worrying about having to wash and sanitize the dishes during or after the flight. Soft goods such as potholders or dish towels should be laundered after each flight.

Other differences she described include no longer allowing pilots to wander back to the galley to grab snacks during food preparation and advising flight attendants to communicate with the pilots ahead of the flight. “Let them know you want to maintain as sterile an environment as you can as you’re preparing and getting things ready for the passengers.”

When it comes to stocking the aircraft, Weidekamp said that she now wipes down all cans and packages with food-grade antimicrobial wipes before bringing them aboard. And when seeking vital housekeeping supplies that are in short supply, such as disposable gloves and sanitizer, she suggests first contacting an aviation- or restaurant-supply company that sells to the public, either in your area or at the destination. She also advised reaching out to your in-flight caterer to see whether it can fill your housekeeping-supply needs.