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Curious City

Tray Table Or Trash? Here’s What Happens To Airline Food When An O'Hare Flight Is Cancelled

As a Chicago newspaper reporter, editor and publisher, Larry Green says he spent decades exploring Chicago and the Midwest. But he says in his retirement, he has made it his business to explore the rest of the world, especially Asia and Africa. In the course of these trips, he has also spent a lot of time at O’Hare International Airport, where flights can be delayed and cancelled for bad weather. These experiences had gotten him curious. Here is his question for Curious City:  

When there are massive weather-generated cancellations at Chicago's airports, what happens to the food prepared for cancelled flights?

His first guess? That food might start frozen, like a TV dinner, and stay frozen when a flight is cancelled. Or, “I also imagine that some of it is donated to food banks,” he adds.

The truth is that most airplane food is thrown away. Even in this age of reduced in-flight meals, that still adds up to a lot of food waste. Millions of sandwiches, breakfast wraps, chicken cutlets, pasta bakes and rice pilafs end up in the trash after thousands of cancelled flights each year.

Airline food waste is a topic many of us may overlook during our fleeting moments at O’Hare. But it’s one that ties to a much larger issue that the U.S. and the world are dealing with right now. Recent studies estimate that in the U.S., we now throw away about 40 percent of all our edible food from farm to fork. Each year, that trashed food costs $218 billion dollars and weighs 72 billion pounds. It takes up 21 percent of our landfill space and uses up 21 percent of our fresh water. At the same time, more than 42.2 million Americans lack regular access to wholesome food.

The reasons behind why airlines throw away food, instead of donating it or freezing it,  are complicated, reflecting the unique timing demands and equipment restrictions of airline food. The issue is further complicated by the fact that, surprisingly enough, most airplane meals are made fresh daily.

Every year, millions of plane meals are thrown away due to delayed or cancelled flights. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

How airplane food works

Here’s generally how airline meals get made:  

Each day, in industrial kitchens near airports including O’Hare cooks prepare thousands of fresh meals based on the number of passengers expected to get in-flight food that day. They put together sandwiches, chop veggies, sear meat and assemble trays with precise portions that check in at precise weights.

Some of the food is fully prepared in the kitchens. But some is half-cooked and then finished in convection ovens on the plane.  

During this time, temperature control is crucial.

“Once the food has been produced in the flight kitchen, it’s being chilled and is kept in cold storage until just before it goes onto the aircraft,” says Philipp Eberhard of Zurich-based Gate Gourmet, which caters dozens of the world’s largest airlines including American, Delta and British Airways.

After those meals have been prepared and chilled in a giant refrigerated room, those trays are stacked into rolling carts and loaded on planes just before the passengers board, Eberhard says.

Carts are often packed with dry ice because planes during short flights usually don’t have refrigerators on board. But if everything is timed right, they don’t really need them because the food is eaten or reheated before the temperature reaches unsafe levels.

Convention ovens on aircrafts heat partially-cooked food to completion. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

When airplane food needs to be tossed

The vast majority of the time, the food preparation process works out swimmingly. But that’s not the case when a flight is cancelled or delayed for more than six hours.

“If the temperature of the food exceeds a certain level or if the delay is too long, then the flight will be re-catered,” Eberhard says.

This means the kitchen crew has to make the entire batch of meals all over again for safety reasons and to preserve the quality of the food, he explains.   

“And the old ones will be disposed of according to the health safety regulations,” Eberhard says.  

Those regulations require food service providers to keep stored food above 140 degrees or below 40 degrees in order to inhibit bacterial growth. When food violates those temperature levels, it’s considered to be in the “danger zone.”  Food held too long in the danger zone has to be thrown out.

But it’s not just Gate Gourmet that tosses food from cancelled and long-delayed flights. United Airlines says it does the same thing.

“We are committed to following regulations for food safety set forth by the FDA, which regulates specific time and temperature parameters for food served to customers,” a United spokesperson says to WBEZ in a written statement.

Still, it’s not a pretty picture when you think of the hundreds of thousands of meals tossed out from O’Hare flights alone last year.

A possible solution

The food news out of O’Hare Airport isn’t all bad.

In fact, the airport last year donated more than 87,000 pounds of leftover food to local charities. But that was from some restaurants and kiosks inside the airport, like Brioche Doree, and Tortas Fronteras, which are managed at O'Hare by a company called HMS Host.

HMS Host says the food it collects is picked up every day at 10 a.m. by local homeless shelter Pacific Garden Mission.

But what would it take to use that same process to donate food from airplanes, just a few hundred yards away from those kiosks?  

HMS Host donates more than 87,000 pounds of leftover food like these sandwiches from O'Hare kiosks to local homeless shelter Pacific Garden Mission. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

Raj Karmani knows more about this issue than most people. He’s both the creator of the food rescue app Zero Percent and the technology chief for Farmer’s Fridge, which sells fresh salads from kiosks and machines (including at O’Hare) and donates leftovers.

Karmani explains that “food rescue is essentially a logistics problem.”

He knows that the logistics of airline food add some extra layers of complexity given the half-cooked entrees and uncertainty surrounding cancelled and delayed flights. But he says it’s far from impossible to donate airline food.

Steve Dietz, who is the director of business development at the national non-profit Food Donation Connection, says he was even part of a big in-flight food donation in 2012. It was when Hurricane Sandy closed down Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C.

“We were able to help them donate 6,900 sandwiches to local charities that would’ve typically been thrown away,” Dietz says. “But this was [organized by] a person with Gate Gourmet who used to be part of our program with other employers, and he knew to call us.”

For Dietz to make it work, it just took the right partner a guy who’d already worked with food donations before. But for the O’Hare donation program to be expanded to actual in-flight meals, Dietz and Karmani say a big element is needed: willingness at the top of an airline company.   

“If we could get senior leadership from major airlines to make it a requirement with their caterers to come up with a way [to donate food], I believe that at least a significant portion of this food that’s being thrown away could be donated to local charities,” Dietz says.

Indeed, in Australia, an organization called OzHarvest collects unopened packaged cookies, granola bars, sandwiches and fruit from cancelled flights at Brisbane Airport, and it donates them to the social service groups.

Companies can gain tax benefits from these donations. And contrary to what many think, they risk no liability from the donation. Even if someone gets sick from the food, the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, a 1996 law passed under then-President Bill Clinton, protects donors who give away food through a third party, as long as they don’t intend harm through their donation.

These are points the Environmental Protection Agency tries to drive home as it encourages more U.S. companies to sign up for the Food Recovery Challenge, a program in which organizations make specific food waste reduction commitments. But EPA representatives note that the program is totally voluntary. And, they add, in the two years the challenge has been running, no airlines have signed up yet.

When I take all of this information back to question-asker Larry Green, he’s disappointed that all those prepared meals are fed to the garbage can.

“Considering the volume of air traffic at O’Hare and the number of storms in the winter, it seems like a real waste,” he says.  

More about our questioner

Questioner Larry Green on a recent trip to the Taj Mahal. (Courtesy Larry Green)

Larry Green is a retired journalist who reported and edited at the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, the Midwest bureau of the Los Angeles Times and The Pioneer Press, where he served as publisher.

In his retirement, he does a little freelance consulting and a lot of traveling, which led to his question.  

“I’m trying to see parts of the world I haven’t seen before,” he says. “Last year, I spent a month in Africa and thought that was fascinating. I also went to Bhutan last year, which was a unique experience.”

He hopes that when he sees cancelled flights during his travels in the future, the food from that flight might meet a more useful fate.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated which restaurants are managed by HMS host. McDonald’s is not managed by the company. We regret the error.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org

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