The wooden rulers seem out of place. Several are lying on food-preparation tables in the test kitchen atUnited Airlines‘ campus in Elk Grove Township, as chefs in tall white hats scurry about.
But for these chefs, the ruler is as important a tool as any whisk or spatula. As a practical matter, none of the hot entrees they concoct can measure more than 2 inches high, because that’s all the onboard kitchen ovens can accommodate. In their recipes, chefs must also consider that passengers lose an estimated 20 percent of their ability to taste when flying at aircraft altitudes. So recipes must be more flavorful than you would normally serve on earth.
“On the ground, a nice mellow flavor might equate to ‘bland’ once you’re in the air,” United’s executive chef, Gerry McLoughlin, explained in an Irish brogue.
Perhaps it is surprising that the terms “chefs” and “recipes” have any role in airline food, which has long been the butt of jokes and nowadays is scarce in economy-class cabins. It might be surprising to know that United Airlines consults with nationally known culinary experts and a master sommelier for food and wine choices — or that personnel debated whether first-class passengers should get heated nuts.
But it’s all true. And on this day in early February, chefs in the test kitchen are serious about the details of their work. They’re creating menus for first- and business-class passengers that will take effect around May 1 for all international United and Continental flights. Food-service officials don’t say it explicitly, but they’re trying to emulate Continental’s food, which traditionally received high ratings, compared with United’s food, which usually scored poorly.
Developing common menus and recipes is a microcosm of the effort and resources devoted to merging the little things of United and Continental. The airlines’ parent companies officially combined in the fall of 2010 but have been working to integrate operations ever since.
“We’re serious about this merger,” said John Yeng, director of product marketing at United. “Part of the reason we’re going through these details is that we want our customers to know that it’s not just merging things together. We’re paying attention.
“We want customers to think, ‘That company gets me.'”
In 2011, Chicago-based United Continental Holdings spent half a billion dollars on integrating the airlines. To most fliers, noticeable changes involve painting planes with a new logo, merging frequent-flier programs and using United’s windows-first boarding method instead of Continental’s back-to-front.
But along the way, attention paid to standardizing small details aboard each flight of the world’s largest airline is astounding.
Take coffeepots, for example.
A committee this month decided the combined airline will be using Continental’s slimmer, sleeker metal serving pot for coffee. While chefs, flight attendants and food-service personnel all get to chime in about many decisions, the pot was mostly chosen by the marketing department, which is concerned with everything the customer sees and experiences. But the Continental pot didn’t win on looks alone. It also got the nod because the smaller pot was ergonomically easier for flight attendants to handle. There was also a concern that a larger pot would mean the flight attendant would serve more customers at a time. The pot would be in the aisle longer, allowing coffee to get cold, said Hue Esser, supervisor for United policies and procedures in the Pacific region.
Those issues — and many of less import — are debated.
“Who would have thought, right?” said Jane Bernier-Tran, United’s managing director of food and beverage planning and design. “It looks much simpler than it is. We really do keep customers in mind, along with all the other logistics of getting it on the plane.”
Granted, many of the choices are for front-of-the-plane customers, who are the most profitable ones for United. Catering to premium-cabin, high-value passengers is a stated priority. And preparation, including a well-choreographed meal service, is key. Once airborne, a missing item — no salt shakers? — is a huge problem. “The worst thing is if you have to say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have it. I know you just paid $4,000 for your ticket, but I can’t give it to you,'” United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said.
A committee, which includes one man whose title is “galley packing analyst,” debates not only the aesthetics and practicality of certain food-service items, but also the ergonomics, safety and weight of every object loaded into the aircraft galley. Weight is a huge consideration, not only because items must be easy to handle — after all, they’re being used in a vehicle hurtling through the sky at 500 mph — but because weight equals jet-fuel burn, and jet-fuel burn equals money. In 2011, United spent some $12.4 billion on jet fuel.
So, all else being equal, if one airline’s galley utensil is lighter, it wins and becomes the standard.
There’s no time to rebid every item or to switch vendors, so United food officials are making literally thousands of decisions simply asking: United’s way or Continental’s way?
For example, Continental used short, wrist-length oven mitts, while United used longer mitts, mostly because United galley ovens were deeper. For the added safety that the longer mitt offered, it won. It didn’t hurt that the longer mitt actually costs less too.