Flight Catering: An Investigation of the Adoption of Mass Customisation

Article excerpt

Mass customisation (MC) is a well-established paradigm in many sectors of industry. The reason for this study was that flight catering appeared to be the first sector of the hospitality industry to be adopting MC. There was a prima facie case that it was introducing many of the features of mass customised products and services--agile manufacturing, lean production, just-in-time inventory, modularity, and flexible labour practices. In particular, the specific MC mode (MacCarthy, Brabazon, & Bramham, 2003) adopted by this industry is identified as 'flexible resource call-off MC' and is established as a model of the operational process with the flight catering industry. The research concludes that although most elements of mass customisation are evident in flight catering, the MC paradigm has not been fully adopted.


Mass customisation (MC) has been identified as the synthesis of two alternative approaches to production, namely job shop and assembly line (Brown, Bessant, Jones, & Lamming, 2000). MC enables the high volume production of a wide variety of products by adopting a range of policies, procedures and techniques in relation to the supply chain, production design, and order fulfilment processes (Gilmore & Pine, 1997). The flight catering industry has been selected for this investigation because there is an a priori case that typical flight kitchens engage in MC due to their high daily outputs and great variety between airlines, seat classes and day parts.

Apart from exploring the concept of MC, the first aim of this study was to investigate to what extent MC exists in the flight catering industry, with the intention of matching flight catering operation to the fundamental modes of operations for MC proposed by MacCarthy et al. (2003). The second aim was to identify the key elements of the mass customisation paradigm and the extent and nature of their adoption within the sector.

The Flight Catering Industry

Flight caterers are high volume operations. For instance, in January 2006 the Cathay Pacific flight kitchen in Hong Kong recorded its highest-ever daily production output--in excess of 74,000 meal trays. Globally there are around 630 flight kitchens with an annual output of more than 1 million meals each. A single flight by a long-haul Boeing 747 may require over 40,000 separate items loaded onto it. Therefore, it is very clear that flight caterers handle a considerable volume of products on a daily basis (Jones, 2004; McCool, 1995). Although referred to as 'flight kitchens', food production is only one stage in the operation. There are a number of subsequent assembly and delivery stages--dish assembly (assembling hot entrees and other dishes from their components such as meat, fish, rice and assorted vegetables), tray assembly, bar cart assembly, trolley loading and delivery to the aircraft.

Flight caterers also have to cope with a high variety of outputs. Most operators contract to supply more than just one airline, as there are few airports where a single airline has enough flights to justify the exclusive use of a kitchen, except for the 'hub' airports of major carriers. So within the flight catering business, there is a considerable variety of outputs, deriving from:

* number of airlines

* types of airline--scheduled, charter, low-cost, executive

* duration of flight--short haul, long haul

* seat class--first, business, economy, and chatter flight.

* 'day-part'--breakfast, mid-morning, lunch, mid afternoon, dinner

* demand for special meals--26 different types, such as kosher, halal, low-fat, low-salt and vegetarian (Jones, 2004)

* menu cycles or 'rotations'--to ensure that frequent flyers are not always served the same menu (McCool, 1995)

Mass Customisation

Hayes and Wheelwright (1979) explained the trade-offs between five different manufacturing processes that can produce different levels of variety and volume. …