On Air Dining’s Daniel Hulme says that his company’s USP is knowing how to cook and prepare food so that dishes are perfect when they are served hours later There are many roles that are as essential to high-altitude travelling as the high-profile pilots. Engineers, flight planning departments and ground handling agents do their work out of the view of most aircraft passengers, so it is less surprising that their contribution is invisible.
But cabin crew are, though highly visible, largely unrecognised. “Flight attendants are the unsung heroes of aviation,” says Daniel Hulme, vice-chairman of the European Flight Attendant Committee, set up under the auspices of the European Business Aviation Association and its US counterpart the National Business Aviation Association.
Fortunately, gone are the days when some airline pilots would have stewardesses sit in the jump seat behind them specifically so that they could harass them during the flight – as told by Baron de Tourtoulon’s revealing book, Trust me I’m the Pilot, about his early days flying for British European Airways, and in many other similar autobiographies.
Mr Hulme has another insight into the role of cabin crew, whose responsibilities for passenger safety in accidents remain, thankfully, usually unseen. His business supplies catering and other services to private flights. “The cabin crew are my clients,” he says; “The guy in the back eating the food is the end user.” Mr Hulme, also managing director of London-based On Air Dining, is not abashed about claiming the value of what he provides to the users. “Service is as vital as a soft landing and a pilot who knows where they’re going,” he says. “It’s the cheapest part of the flight – but probably the most important.”
Service is as vital as a soft landing and a pilot who knows where they’re going – Daniel Hulme, managing director of On Air Dining using good, seasonal produce is to be expected. But On Air Dining’s unique selling proposition, according to Mr Hulme, is knowing how to cook and prepare food so that dishes are perfect when they are served hours later, as well as making it easy for stewards and stewardesses (95% are women, he says) to serve the food in the best possible condition. “Everything has to be cooked only to a certain point,” he says. But to ease the task for the flight attendants and their cramped, limited working areas, each dish “kit” comes with a step-by-step photo guide to how to reheat and serve it.
“That makes sure the cabin crew can’t mess it up,” he says. The task is eased by having a fairly limited menu of dishes and going outside to a small number of specialists such as the Michelin-starred Tamarind Indian restaurant for regional cuisine.
Even that, though, needs to be specially prepared and packaged for transport to avoid ending up with the appearance of a reheated takeaway. But with homegrown dishes such as “Bonito Crusted Salmon with Scallop Ravioli, Samphire, Ginger and Bonito Broth with Lobster Oil”, perhaps it is unsurprising that 90-95 per cent of his orders are for food that is prepared from raw ingredients to point-of-despatch by the company’s team of in-house chefs.
Repeat business and recommendations have yielded a growth rate of 30-50 per cent in annual turnover for the three-and-a-half years he has been operating. But a future direction of growth is new markets. “We’re picking up a lot of African clients,” he says. That suits his operation – Asian and Chinese clients want their own regional food, but Nigerian and other African private flyers tend to choose European cuisine.
The price of Mr Hulme’s airborne culinary expertise sounds like it should be up in the clouds. But he says: “Our concierge service, providing everything such as coffee, flowers and papers, as well as our food, for an A320 [the size of a regional jet airliner but in executive configuration] will cost from £600 to £3,000, depending on the order.” When the cost of running or chartering that aircraft can be counted in hundreds of thousands of pounds, that price seems rather down to earth.