Nearly 100 years ago, the first inflight meal was served – for 3 shillings (around £6 in 2018 terms). Passengers aboard a London-to-Paris flight could purchase a pre-packed lunch, consisting of a sandwich and fruit. Fast forward to today and some airlines still offer the ability to purchase pre-packed lunches (although add in a considerable amount of packaging) but there are also other meals available that are optimistically described as ‘gourmet’ by airline marketing departments. From humble beginnings, airline catering has grown into a $13 billion industry (and estimated to grow to $18 billion by 2021).
Supply chain challenges
While airline food is bemoaned by most travellers, there is a good reason why the sandwich that is placed before you looks like it is old or the meat is dry. If you consider the logistics of food preparation and then add in the complexity of ensuring that the food is loaded onto a plane on time, add in a good dollop of food safety and supply chain security, and you get a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes action that is designed to keep us content (and safe) in the skies.
Of course, one of the greatest changes to airplane food occurred after 9/11 – the airlines needed to replace metal cutlery with plastic, a practice that saw many US airlines, in particular, abandon the serving of meals and, instead, provide snacks and drinks only. This has changed with more airlines returning to serving meals across “all classes” of travellers – perhaps it is a realisation that plane food is, in part, about providing nutrition but also that the food cart is entertainment (imagine how boring long flights would be without the anticipation of the cart coming around).
The impact of illness in flight
Airplane food safety is something that is taken seriously by airlines and with good reason. In 1992, on an Aerolineas Argentinas flight, an elderly passenger died, and others became ill after eating shrimp tainted with cholera. Guidelines are developed and shared within the industry to ensure best practice and airlines often share catering firms.
Preparation on the ground
Food is prepared on the ground, generally around 10 hours before consumption and, in some cases the meals can be made up to 72 hours before-hand and frozen. These meals can only be reheated once on board using either convection or steam ovens. According to a report in the Daily Mail, beef is only cooked to 30% of completion and chicken around 60% with the cooking process being completed inflight.
Celebrity chefs weigh in
It has become standard for airlines to engage celebrity chefs to assist with menu design, with the quality and variety of meals often touted in marketing materials. According to airline blogger ‘The Points Guy’ “Airline chefs must trick the mind into tasting the salt and sugars that it can no longer sense when flying, boosting sweetness through sauces and letting the brain infer saltiness through a clever use of spices”. Food that would be too sweet or salty at ground level is culinary perfection at 35,000 feet.
As well as tweaking recipes to ensure they are still tasty in the air, menu design has to take into account other aspects such as how flying impacts on our ability to smell which is an important component in how we enjoy food: “When chefs design menus for passengers, they have to use ingredients they know will dry out quickly, but which still taste great to people who essentially have head colds, who can’t taste saltiness or sweetness well and who have to eat in a cramped room full of grumpy strangers and loud whirring machinery.” This provides some rationale around why certain foods (e.g. bacon) seem to appear with monotonous regularity on some menus.
In addition to taste and appearance, there are other considerations that the celebratory chefs have to take into account, not the least of which (appreciated by all on a long-haul flight) is the avoidance of ingredients that cause discomfort (namely flatulence) for passengers. Next time you hear that safety briefing where the flight crew states that they “take your safety and comfort seriously” know that this also extends to the range of food placed before you. There are also some foods that send pleasant aromas through the cabin when they are heated for serving (garlic bread is a good example), other foods have less desirable smells when reheated (e.g. broccoli). A classic example of how smells can be amplified in the sky occurred for one Australian carrier who served sandwiches containing [Parmesan cheese], one passenger commented that it ‘filled her flight with the smell of old socks” leading to some passengers vomiting (which no doubt increased the number of unpleasant odours).
Tons of waste
Given how many airline advertisements include reference to the quality of meals provided in flight, perhaps another interesting marketing angle might be if airlines were to provide details of how much food they waste per year. It is likely to be considerable. For example, if a flight is delayed for over 6-8 hours it is reported that the entire load of food must be replaced (and the old meals go to landfill). Last year, the global airline industry generated 5.2 million tons of trash – this included amenities, magazines, and blankets, as well as food. Along with this is the ‘need’ for everything to be wrapped in plastic. Refreshingly, on a recent Air France flight, croissants were served hot and handed to each passenger in a napkin – no plastic in sight (and they were delicious).
It's always about the cost
As the global financial crisis hit, airlines started to reduce costs where ever they could. Of course, cost has always been a consideration to airlines with reports that one airline saved $40,000 USD in 1987 by the removal of one olive from salads. Similarly, another US airline reportedly saved $210,000 by removing a strawberry from first class salads on domestic flights. It appears that even tiny changes make a big difference to airline profitability, (Northwest Airlines, prior to its merger with Delta, reportedly saved $500,000 a year by slicing limes 16 times instead of 10) and cost consideration underscores all inflight menu choices. While, on an airline scale, these changes provide large savings and it is easy to think that airlines spend a lot on meals, the reality is somewhat different with some airline meals costing around $3.50 USD to prepare – a very small proportion of your ticket price.