June 25, 2024


Explore Catering’s Roger Williams looks at the catering trolley, its critical role in onboard service and how this vital piece of kit is evolving …

Love them or hate them, trolleys or carts are the lifeblood of onboard catering, and are increasingly expected to work harder in support of both the passenger experience and onboard sales.

Designs have hardly changed since the 1980s. They are still pretty much just a ‘box on wheels’, but beyond their superficial looks things are evolving.

Some essentials remain key. Trolleys still need to maximise content capacity and product safety, fit the galley spaces provided, and be tough and durable to survive the robust operating environment. They need to work whatever the aircraft or train aisle and galley size, the loading and turning spaces, and F&B offering, and increasingly they need to bring weight savings and operational value too.Being lockable, fully enclosed, stress resistant, stable, braked, washable and accessible from both ends is vital, as is meeting FST (fire, smoke and toxicity) limits, and having “musculoskeletal friendly ergonomics”.

Name games

The most common cart, the ATLAS, used by around 80% of the industry, was named for the carriers that first used it – an acronym of Alitalia, TAP, Lufthansa, Air France and Sabena. Similarly KSSU trolleys were named after KLM, Swiss Air, SAS Scandinavian and UTA. But increasingly every carrier is looking for bespoke features, with designed-in adjustments to suit their needs such as tray extensions, magazine racks, decorative panels and even LED lighting. Others customise trolleys for different uses, such as duty free sales, or to proactively deliver the buy-on-board F&B programme.

More advanced concepts have appeared such as a draught beer trolley (pioneered by Gate Group’s Heineken trolley), and speciality coffee machines. Sky Tender Solutions turned heads with its Sky Barista trolley offering premium hot drinks inflight and followed that with the SkyBar SPLASH delivering quality chilled drinks. It ticks boxes for those trying to cut out plastic bottles. However, development progress seems slow with batteries, and anything relying on pressurised requirements is always going to face issues inflight.

Adding value

One area where innovation is starting to have an impact is in supporting operational efficency.

SOPHY by Safran Cabin is now tracking trolleys with its wafer-thin sensors that monitor progress and provide insights on trolley condition and contents. An associated app collects real time information and fitted trolleys can interact with each other to create a smart network of information on performance efficiency. It can monitor handovers, cleaning and maintenance, and helps increase the accuracy of data collection too.

And as chilling reliablity increases, trolleys can also support operational efficiencies such as return catering. Burcher’s ARCTICart claims to be the new generation of insulated inflight carts, fully compatible with ATLAS trays and galley spaces but with high performing thermal insulation for chiller-free operations or return catering. It works without dry ice or power and ensures less than a four degree temperature increase over 20 hours. It is available in full and half sizes. 

Korita Aviation’s Aluflite trolleys feature a standard push-to-close locking system, a low maintenance four-wheel braking system, a recessed pull handle and a choice of exterior finishes with sublimation being a favourite as it allows creative customised images and vibrant branding to appear on the trolley’s sides. And where inflight wifi is being monetised, wifi trolleys are emerging to store and transport tablets and enable easy recharging on the ground.

Serving suggestion

On the rails, trolleys can be a frustration largely because pasengers never know if there will be one coming or not. They can’t see them coming or know for sure if it has already passed them, and research shows that passengers who ultimately conclude they can’t rely on the trolley will most likely bring their own F&B next time they board.

Typically there is just one trolley on a train – this being driven by the economics of sales versus crew salary. Unlike airlines, where staff are already onboard, most on-train caterers are self-supporting via retail sales. 

Sales penetration differs by route, but 10-15% is not uncommon and operators face strong on-station competition that is hard to challenge with an inevitably restricted range.

With a lack of mobile refrigeration, trolleys without a galley back-up rely on pre-chill for fresh food and cold drinks, often reducing the offering to the lowest common denominator.

Drinks are the key driver of sales – coffee in particular. But carrying large volumes of hot water has its challenges and European machines, top-fed with bottled water, are painfully slow.

In the UK (and in Czech Republic, which uses a similar system) heated potable water is piped from integrated water urns and instant coffee is common. Use of micro-ground coffees such as Starbucks VIA helps raise the taste profile, but it can’t compete with a long speciality coffee from a coffee shop. Much depends on battery performance, power ratings, urn capacity, battery weight and the weight and space required, and that’s before you even get to the coffee itself. Ironically, that all means even less snack volume can be carried.

Having supplied many of Hitachi’s new UK high-speed trains with an onboard trolley retained on the train, Sovereign Planned Services is now working with Fracino, using lightweight lithium phosphate batteries that only weigh 7kg and last up to 3.5 times longer than traditional ones. They’ve integrated a coffee machine (itself only 7.5kg) with barista-style pod handle that can produce 120 cups on one charge. And other companies such as Segafredo and Engineer Ethics are involved in similar developments. The race is on to see who can deliver the first sustainable latte or cappuccino at speed and in high enough volumes from a trolley. 

Just a “box on wheels” it may be, but a box which still has a role to play and the potential to support both the passenger experience and efficiency.