The airline catering sector endured some tough times following 9/11 but the market is now growing steadily on the back of the growth in air travel. Nevertheless, writes Mark Rowe, changing customer requirements are demanding a more versatile and flexible approach to supplying in-flight food.

In-flight catering has experienced a turbulent ride in recent years. Self-evidently, this sector's fortunes are inextricably linked to those of the aviation industry and, put simply, fewer passengers means lower sales.

But as the aviation market has recovered in the wake of 9/11, in-flight caterers have seen an upturn in business, along with new demands and opportunities which require an increasingly eclectic and versatile approach. For instance, Alpha, the in-flight catering firm, must provide Eastern flavours for ANA (All Nippon Airways) in its Japanese kitchens at Heathrow, London, while also presenting grilled steak to American Airlines' first class passengers.

According to the International Travel Catering Association, in-flight catering is worth up to US$15bn a year across the world, with a predicted annual growth rate of around 5%. It also directly employs more than 100,000 people worldwide. Gate Gourmet, one of the major in-flight caterers, produces 624,000 meals every day - or 228m meals a year - from 107 kitchens, catering for some 250 airlines.

Recently, the decision by many airlines - notably low-cost carriers - to cease to provide free in-flight meals has forced airline caterers to re-think their business plans. Gate Gourmet has reacted by offering new products, such as a fully disposable meal box, and by taking over retails sales on board for some airlines, while it also provides ready-made sandwiches for Iberia and EasyJet.

Another important issue is food safety. From reducing the risks of food-poisoning to potential bio-terrorism, the industry is now acknowledging that food plays an underestimated role in the whole area of airline security.

Yet, according to Erica Sheward, technical director of food manufacturer Castle-Kitchens, many airline caterers are hiding behind legal loopholes that enable them to provide poor quality food to airlines. "Companies say they are in the catering industry when actually they are manufacturers," Sheward says. "That means they don't have to comply with the same regulations that manufacturers do when they sell ready meals to supermarkets. Aviation food has fallen off the regulatory radar."

The problem extends beyond the UK, says Sheward. "You're not just putting crew and passengers at risk. You are putting food on a flight that is entering an international food chain and is going to be dumped in another country for use. Airline catering is budget-driven: as long as it is cheap and it is made on time, it's OK."

Michael Pooley, vice president of supply chain and product development at Gate Gourmet, acknowledges that there is a widespread perception that airline caterers are solely responsible for the food served on board and therefore simply a repository for complaints. But as a sign of airline caterers' intention to reclaim lost ground, Gate Gourmet is launching a centre of excellence on 1 January, based at its Zurich offices, comprising a small team of culinary and supply-chain experts.

"The events post 9/11 took a lot out of us," Pooley says. "And it meant we took our eyes a little bit off the R&D element. The centre will look at new ideas, improved response times, product and service development, and allow customers to come and see what we are doing."

The centre is part of a plan to bring airline caterers back to the front line of menu design, and will allow the company to amalgamate many of the research and design and culinary projects it already operates.  Food will always be approved and pre-determined by airlines' product development teams, but Gate Gourmet hopes for greater involvement in the food that is placed before customers.

 "We are not the guys who say you'll have fish today and steak tomorrow," says Pooley. "But we think we could be more influential. Airlines control their budget and brand but we are saying 'give us the opportunity to share our market experience'. We will spend more time looking at retail and restaurant trends on the high street and are more than capable of bringing this to the passenger."

Paradoxically, while the aviation industry has been criticised for its contribution to climate change, the catering sector is pulling in the opposite direction, taking steps to reduce packaging and the weight of in-flight tray meals. "Everything is now driven to reducing carbon emissions," says Sheward. "Airline trolleys have been developed that are just half the weight of the older ones and drinks are served in recyclable bottles."