Nov 15 2009

Airline Food

November 15th, 2009 at 1:10 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We fly a lot.

Enough so that we typically have elite status with at least one or two airlines every year.

One thing we have found is that airline food quality has not improved much over the last couple of decades – it’s actually gotten worse, and certainly when flying coach domestically food quantity has gone down significantly as well. Nowadays you’re lucky to get a small bag of nuts or pretzels for free, with anything else needing to be paid for. And the things available to buy are mass-produced and laden with chemicals, refined flour, and refined sugar (or worse yet, high fructose corn syrup).

We typically use the large quantities of frequent flyers we earn on getting upgrades to business class or first class, off a base paid economy class ticket. As such, we fly in first class most of the time. And I can say that first class food, while far better than what’s in economy, is also nothing exciting from a food enthusiast’s perspective.

For example, on this morning’s flight from Bonaire to Newark, we had a choice of Cheerios or an egg “omelet”. I’m pretty sure it was really egg, but it was flat and rubbery and tasteless. My cat could probably cook a better omelet. The sausage patty had a puffy texture and was bland (it did not get eaten) and probably didn’t much meat in it. The only “real” thing on the plate were scalloped potatoes (reasonably tasty, but not noteworthy enough to sacrifice my carb allowance on) and a thick but small (and dry) slice of ham (which made the egg “omelet” slightly more edible).

Accompanying the main dish (omelet or Cheerios) were a bowl with fresh fruit (strawberry, cantaloupe, pineapple, grapes, and watermelon) and a sweetened berry yogurt. A croissant or muffin were were also offered. Okay, but again, nothing special. But still better than the cereal-only option in economy class.

The real issue with airline food is that it is mass-produced, formulaic, and designed to be reheated (when applicable) in the limited quarters available in the airline galley. That’s a recipe for mundanity. Airline food provides calories but no real culinary joy.

One solution to the unsatisfactory airline repast problem we have come up with is to pack a small bit of extra food for ourselves which is, almost always, of higher quality and food enjoyment value than airline food. It can be as simple as hard boiled eggs (which still look and taste like eggs, unlike this morning’s “omelet”), cold cuts, and nice cheeses, along with fresh fruit. However, if traveling internationally, note that you cannot bring any meat or produce into many countries, so such items need to be consumed or thrown out before landing.

On a related note, did you know that each airline has systems in place to determine where in the first class/business class cabin they start to offer meals? If you know the system for the particular airlines you travel, and book early enough, you can secure yourself a seat in the right area to have a better chance to have an option in terms of the types of meals available.

For example, on Continental Airlines, the flight attendants always start at the front of the cabin, meaning if you sit in the first half of the first class cabin, you’re more likely to have a choice, but if you get sit in the back, you’ll get whatever item the other passengers didn’t want as much of. If, like me, you avoid meals with empty calories (high carb, like pasta and pizza), this means you may well get stuck with a dish you don’t want or can’t eat.

On American Airlines, if the flight number is odd, they start asking for meal choices in the back of the cabin, while for even numbered flights it’s in the front. In economy, they always start in the front. This is very important nowadays when many airlines only sell food in economy, as they are very likely to run out of what you want as they progress towards the back of the plane.


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