Dnata: Feeding the Fleets

Dnata’s operation in Jordan served a record 3 million meals to passengers last year, another sign of our growing appetite for air travel.

By Celine Al Khaldi

Ever wonder why you often crave a glass of spicy tomato juice with lime during a flight, although you’re typically not a fan? It’s because the combination of dryness and low pressure reduces the sensitivity of your taste buds to sweet and salty foods by around 30 percent. While sour, bitter, and spicy flavors are almost unaffected.

While many of us might find this fun fact fairly inconsequential, for global air service provider dnata, knowing what types of food to serve in the sky is central to their business.

As well as catering, the company, which is owned by the Emirates Group, also provides cargo and ground handling services to 131 airports in 83 countries across the globe with a team of almost 40,000 people.

Dnata’s facility at Queen Alia International Airport serves nearly 40 airlines, including Royal Jordanian, British Airways, and Lufthansa. It’s a 24-hour operation with over 500 employees.

The company’s 13,000 square-meter kitchen at the airport includes an in-house bakery, and a comprehensive range of ancillary services such as a laboratory for food testing, laundry facilities, and bonded warehouses.

DnataLast year, dnata prepared a record 3 million meals. “2016 marked a significant milestone for us at dnata,” said CEO of dnata Jordan, Dana al Adwan. “The growth we have experienced over the last 6 years is thanks to our integration into dnata’s global operations.”

In 2010, dnata acquired Alpha Flight Group Ltd, an international in-flight catering business which had been part of the privatized Royal Jordanian Airline Services. Alpha Flight Group was officially rebranded to dnata in 2015, increasing the company’s international portfolio. It was dnata’s fifth significant acquisition in the airport services sector between 2006 and 2010, consolidating its position as a significant player in the global industry. Dnata today has a 35 percent stake in the airline catering company, alongside two other stakeholders, Eastern Investment Holding Group and Royal Jordanian.

Airlines catering is actually deceptively complex. While the way food is served on trays to airline passengers bears some resemblance to service styles in restaurants or cafeterias, the way food is prepared and cooked increasingly resembles a food manufacturing plant. Surely, the hot kitchen in the dnata production facility makes up about 10 percent of the total floor area. However, the majority of the space is used for tray and trolley assembly and flight wash-up. There are far more loaders and drivers employed than chefs. Dnata’s headquarters has a service fleet of around 20 hi-lift loaders in addition to 15 marshalling and service vehicles.

The production capacity of the QAIA kitchen is over 6 million a year, and is poised to meet future growth. To manage and meet daily demands, meals are made using standardized inventory control systems and manufacturing processes. Such procedures ensure that perishable food ingredients are handled with minimum waste; that meals are prepared and stored under sanitary conditions, preventing food contamination; and that the resulting meals remain attractive and tasty.

Chefs first develop recipes in laboratory kitchens where meals are designed, prepared, and taste-tested, bearing in mind that these meals are typically served to passengers with temporarily less sensitive taste buds. Recipes are therefore tweaked as caterers prepare meals on the ground to get the flavour right. The whole meal and its ingredients are weighed, counted, and measured.

The travelling public might have the misconception that all airplane meals are frozen. But al Adwan said dnata operates a fresh, not frozen model. All ingredients are sourced from the same supplier and all passenger meals are expected to look and taste identical to that on an equivalent flight, regardless of the port they leave from in Jordan.

Dnata Operations in QAIAAnother misconception, al Adwan said, is that just because the meals come from the same supplier this means they will all have the same characteristics. She said different airlines have different recipes for similar meals. Dnata is committed to continuously advising and pitching innovative ideas to their clients, ensuring that the food they are yet to cook meets safety regulations and tastes good in the air. Yet some airlines will request different brands of base ingredients at varying cost and quality levels, while others may ask for cheaper cuts of meat for stews, for instance. In the end, some airlines will prioritize cost, something dnata must adhere to.

Dnata is the only operator in the airline catering business in Jordan at this point, and doesn’t face local competition. Although the recent developments in the broader commercial aviation market leading to its steady recovery from the global financial crisis have had an uncertain effect on in-flight caterers, the growing number of aircraft in the industry has certainly created an increasing demand for on-board catering services.

However, after the global economic slowdown in 2009, catering providers’ operations could not remain the same, since pressure to reduce costs has led airlines to reconsider their business models. Al Adwan cites several challenges facing its operations in Jordan, namely the growth of low cost carriers, airlines charging lower fares, and cutting back on creature comforts. In the market where outsourcing seems to be a solution largely favored by airlines, catering providers like dnata had to come up with ways of adapting in order to survive such market volatility.

Dnata’s revenues for the first half of 2016 reached $1.6 billion, up 14 percent year-on-year. But profits were down 1 percent to $150 million, mainly due to the impact of the strong US dollar on currency repatriation from international businesses, and also due to start up investment costs in some of its new acquisitions, the company said.

Despite the various challenges, al Adwan says dnata’s arm in Jordan has managed to tap other sources of revenue. Having a retail-operating unit with eight food and beverage outlets at QAIA, dnata has offered a range of cuisines to the passengers passing through the airport, as well as catering services to the Royal Jordanian Airport Crown Lounge. With QAIA welcoming over 3.4 million passengers during the first half of 2016, according to figures issued by Airport International Group—the company responsible for the airport’s rehabilitation—dnata is bound to benefit from this passenger traffic.