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7 Oct, 2002

Food & Catering Sector Faces post-9/11 Security Headaches

Kuala Lumpur: Security concerns are creating major financial and administrative headaches for suppliers of food and catering services to the aviation industry in the post-9/11 era.

Although not a single incident of hijacking or terrorism has involved security lapses in catering, suppliers say they are suffering from an image of being the “soft-under-belly” of aviation, and a potential weak link in the ever-tightening security chain.

This includes everything from contamination to poisoning and even smuggling of potentially dangerous goods on board aircraft via catering trucks. Catering companies refer to this as ‘bioterrorism.’

Across the aviation industry, security costs have doubled or tripled, with additional pressure on the time and training required. Liability insurance premiums have doubled. To compensate, many companies have frozen hiring, suspended other capital expenditure and cutback on outsourcing.

Though much of the security has focussed on airline check-in counters and airports, the most obvious area of in-flight security has been the replacement of metal food knives with plastic ones, mainly on flights to US and Europe. Still, that is only part of the chain.

Behind the scenes, security is being stepped up across the board, from the time food is grown to the time it is delivered to the catering companies. They in turn have to boost security from the time food is stored and prepared to the time it is loaded on the aircraft.

Panelists at a conference of flight catering suppliers and professionals in Kuala Lumpur last week said a host of directives have come down from US and UK Transportation and Security authorities about how to address these concerns.

Many of these directives are confusing, contradictory and repetitive to the catering personnel who have never had to had to deal with any such thing before. However, after an initial period of confusion, chaos and outrage, things are settling down as they become more used to what is being done and why.

Said John Long, Chairman, International Flight Food Service Association, “There is a tremendous of conflicting information from one government agency to another. And within each government agency, from one individual to another and one city to another.” He said the situation is compounded by many interpretations of the same regulation and different regulations for international airlines versus domestic airlines.

Mr Lionel Wilton, Director, Busines Development, Alpha Flight Services noted that the directives are followed up by audits by security personnel of different airlines. If the procedures are found to be lax, catering companies risk withdrawal of licenses.

While most airlines run their own catering at home base, they use external catering companies abroad who are also having to apply the same security directives as the airlines. This can also mean background checks on staff.

One company reported it has created a ‘stop the stranger’ check which authorises staff to question any stranger they see on the premises about what they are doing. Employees are rewarded with gift certificates and executives claimed that it has had a very “positive and constructive” effect.

One speaker from a major regional airline stunned delegates by saying that it might even be necessary in future to ask for the political persuasion of employees before hiring. This suggestion was shot down as being unworkable because it would contradict regulations in some countries that even prohibits questions being asked about their religion.

“It’s a real touchy one,” said one executive. “To ask them for political persuasion would be impossible.”

Who will pay for all this? Unfortunately, said Mr Camille Cucharme, Manager Customer Development of Nestle, “The costs will be born by the consumers and customers. That is inevitable.”

To cut costs elsewhere, airlines are trimming quality and increasing usage of cardboard-box meals on shorter sectors. In many cases, meals are being dispensed with altogether, similar to the no-frills airlines now commonplace in much of Europe and the US.

The billions of dollars worth of food & beverage products translates into thousands of jobs in the agriculture industry. Mr Tomas Jamtander, General Manager of Manila-based MacroAsia-Eurest which is partly owned by Singapore Airlines Terminal Services, said all will be hit by another downturn in the event of an attack on Iraq.

He said catering companies had cut back their purchases of food products when several airlines stopped flying to Manila as a result of route rationalisation after 9/11. Now, Middle East airlines will again be affected, meaning further rollbacks.

Executives note that the current plethora of security systems is unsustainable and will have to be replaced with something more standardised and cost-effective.

Pilots, too, are getting sick of the security arrangements. “There’s no fun in flying any more,” said Capt Alex de Silva Divisional VP in charge of security at Singapore Airlines. “At one time, on the long-haul flights, we could go out and have a little friendly chat with passengers in first-class. Now, we can’t even leave the cockpits except to go to the toilet.”

He said that at one international security forum, he queried the value of disallowing nail-clippers and scissors on board when a wine bottle could easily be smashed and converted into a weapon. He said he was told that in future, all glass would be taken off aircraft and replaced with plastic.

Asked what that would mean for the environment, with all that plastic being thrown away, Capt de Silva shrugged. “That’s exactly what I thought,” he said.

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