Is it even possible to taste good food in midair, much less make palatable in-flight fare?
November 24 kicks off the busiest travel season of the year. If you’re like 24 million other Americans, you’ll be taking to the skies. At 30,000 feet, airlines whip out a pre-packaged smorgasbord of salty snacks and sodas from a metal cart for a captive audience. Pringles, Munchie Mix, Blue Diamond almonds, salted cashews, or a cardboard box containing a plastic-wrapped turkey sandwich the texture of your passport. If the TSA’s security theater weren’t bad enough, in-flight fodder is another, albeit slight, indignity to endure this Thanksgiving.
While food has become a source of apprehension associated with air travel for years, in-flight meals weren’t always this way. Aeronauts, who made the first human ascent in hydrogen balloons in 1783, brought along bottles of champagne, writes Richard Holmes in The Age of Wonder. The acrobatic balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi lunched on chicken legs as he “rowed” his balloon across the sky, and when Jean Blanchard and John Jeffries flew across the English Channel in 1785, they packed bread, chicken, and brandy (which they later jettisoned to avoid crashing).
With the advent of zeppelins and airplanes in the early 20th century, commercial air transport aspired to become a flying equivalent of lavish ocean liners or luxury railcars—and cold picnics were central to attracting riders. Guillaume de Syon, who wrote a chapter on airline food in Food for Thought, told me, “If airlines wanted to be competitive, they had to have fare that was equivalent to that of a Pullman car. At times, airlines even ordered meals from railway companies.”
As the airline industry took off in the 1930s, some flights offered a nauseating combination of fried chicken, box lunches, and free cigarettes—anything to get your mind off the bumpy, uncomfortable flight itself. While there was a brief period of luxury in-air dining, airlines also set the expectations high, mostly to justify the cost of a $300 ticket. A 1984 Pan Am Worldways flight from New York to San Francisco, for example, served, among other things Lobster Thermidor and yellow rice with almonds and raisins (this is via Northwestern University’s excellent menu collection). Because of this legacy, when we board today, we still hope the food will excel and help to pass the time, to entertain, and, more than anything, to fulfill the ritual of flying. And we still expect a good food despite some very clear technical limitation—and some even clearer economic ones.
Today’s caterers rely on economies of scale and employ the kind of food service technology you’ll find in hospitals and school cafeteria kitchens. The cook-chill systems cook food sous-vide, rapidly chill it, and then reheat it onboard. Earlier this year, USA Today discovered that SG Sky Chefs, Gate Gourmet, and Flying Food Group cut corners and prepared contaminated foods from fly- and roach-infested facilities. But even under optimal conditions, cooked to the exact specifications of the latest celebrity chefs hired to reinvigorate flaccid airline fare, the taste of food changes when you’re inside a parched, hypobaric metal tube that’s vibrating and humming along at 550 miles per hour.
Recently, Germany’s Lufthansa Airlines conducted research inside a stationary Airbus A310 designed to replicate flying conditions. Deutche Welle reported that flyers said their taste buds felt dulled, requiring 20 percent more sugar and salt (explaining the particular appeal of V-8 or a Bloody Mary). In another study published this fall, British and Dutch researchers outfitted volunteers with headphones playing loud background noises and found that the noise made foods appear less salty and sweet. Loud noise did make crunchy foods appear crunchier—more Munchie Mix, anyone?
The studies suggest that in order to make tasty in-flight, you almost have to undermine healthy offerings, leaving little hope for bringing the intense flavors of local, baby carrots or the nuance of regional wines to the skies without completely reengineering airplanes. So why bother? “Airline food is a necessity that we’ve come to expect,” de Syon says. “But we’re not going to discuss it when we come home to our families. ‘Oh the Chablis was so good…’ Still, the fact that airlines keep trying to make it better gives me hope. It’s just we can’t expect much for what little we pay.”
The last time I ate at a McDonald’s was in Detroit, en route to Boston, after having missed a connecting flight home. While the latest Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine report says that Detroit's airport is the only one in the country where every fast food joint has at least one healthy offering, I couldn't help but think about how those early aeronauts and zeppelin passengers were thrilled by the romance of eating while traveling. Even in times of troubling economic times and cutbacks in quality—call me a Romantic if you want—I’m still hoping for an exception to that rule when I’m flying.
Illustrations by Junyi Wu