Fast and fancy food on the wing: Alpha Airlines has found the right ingredients for in-flight catering

THE apparent straightforwardness of Alpha Airports' annual results belies the complexity of its core business.

Time is everything when it comes to providing in-flight catering to more than 100 airlines. Putting together the thousands of items - up to 40,000 for one jumbo jet - to meet each airline's dedicated requirements for a specific time is a tricky affair.

'Most things in life start with uncertainty, but with more information they become less uncertain. It is the opposite in our business,' says Paul Harrison, chief executive and holder of a PhD in operations management.

For the passenger the in- flight meal simply turns up soon after take-off. But for Alpha it entered the planning stage two months previously when the company received notification of arrival and departure times from the airline.

'The logistics at this phase are quite clear,' says Mr Harrison. 'You know that demand can't exceed a certain amount. But what you don't know is the number or classification of passengers. The real trick of this business is not to manage the early stages, but to manage it in the final stages when you have the numbers.'

Notification of airline flight schedules helps Alpha to gauge demand at some fixed time in the future, but what it does not enable it to do is to fathom with any degree of certainty what the final outcome on any one day will be.

'No two days are the same,' says Mr Harrison. 'You have to have headroom to cope with the unknown . . . the margin of error has to deal with bad weather, technical problems and other unforeseen events.'

While Alpha is a stand-alone operator, it has to fit in the daily schedule of an airport.

Moreover, the complexity of the business operation has grown over the past five years as individual aircraft have been worked much harder.

Alpha's day at Heathrow starts in earnest at between 4am and 5am. This gives a lead time of about three hours to prepare for the unloading of long-haul aircraft arriving from the US, and another two to get them ready for their subsequent short-haul trip to, say, Germany. The planes then return to the UK in the afternoon and fly back to the US in the evening.

Unloading an aircraft is perhaps the easier of the day's tasks. All the catering equipment is placed on a truck and the reusable utensils and crockery go for washing-up before being stored.

Loading is a bigger problem. Alpha is only provided with approximate passenger numbers for a scheduled flight about 12 hours before take-off.

During that time the company may be told that an aircraft has filled 154 of 187 economy seats, half of the 40 available in business, and eight of the dozen first-class seats. But these numbers can change dramatically.

'If you ran this business as a caterer, then you would not be profitable,' says Mr Harrison. 'You have to run it on the basis of logistics and business management. Size is not the main area of concern. . . it is the changing passenger loads and classifications set against shrinking time zones.'

For each classification - from economy to first - there are distinct requirements.

Changes in the number of passengers in economy class are the easiest to deal with as meals are restricted in choice. Business travellers have some choice of meal, but not much, and again do not pose too big a problem if their numbers swell from 20 to, say, 35 only two hours before take-off.

'But if there is a big upgrade in first class, you really have to be inventive,' says Mr Harrison. 'This is the labour-intensive end of the business - meals are hand-crafted and you have to offer passengers far more choice.

'When there is a big upgrade, there is really only one way to deal with the problem. All the catering staff for first class are told to stop. It is like an industrial production line . . . you don't try to fix it in the run. It is about service, delivery and customers.'

This is where having capacity headroom comes into play. Upgrades to first class and external problems, such as inclement weather, mean higher costs which have to be built into the business model.

Hence, Alpha ensures its kitchens have surplus capacity of about 10 per cent, although this is only likely to be used during the busy periods in early and mid-morning for the arrival of long-haul aircraft and domestic and European flights, and late afternoon for long-haul departures.

Alpha is now looking to cash in on what Mr Harrison calls the 'full-plane, empty-plane scenario'. Why, he asks, if Alpha provides in-flight catering for planes leaving the UK should it not repeat the operation when the plane arrives at its destination.

An announcement yesterday of a joint venture with British West Indian Airways to provide catering at Picaro international airport in Trinidad is probably the first of many to come over the next few years.

Alpha touched down yesterday with a 17.8 per cent increase to pounds 19.2m in pre-tax profits for the year to 31 January. The result, as would be expected for a company that has to meet tight schedules, was as forecast when it floated on the stock market last year.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)

News
people

Arts and Entertainment
JJ Abrams' seventh Star Wars, The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of Episode VII has gone online after weeks of anticipation
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
art

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Citifocus Ltd: German Speaking Client Specialist

£Attractive Package: Citifocus Ltd: Prestigious asset management house seeks a...

Citifocus Ltd: Performance & Risk Oversight

£Negotiable: Citifocus Ltd: This is a varied role focusing on the firm's mutua...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Director - SaaS (SME/Channel) - £140,000 OTE

£90000 - £140000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achievin...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Telesales Executive - Cloud Software/SaaS - £37,000 OTE

£25000 - £37000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you seeking to furth...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game