Each Friday, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.
It’s the question that nobody ever truly wants to answer, the kind of query known to strike fear into the hearts of free men and women, to twist stomachs into knots, and make those willing to brave the not-so-friendly skies wish they had a parachute.
“Chicken or pasta?”
Airplane food has long been a punch line for late-night comedians and disenchanted road warriors. In one of the greatest customer complaint letters of all time, a Virgin Atlantic passenger offered up this critique to owner Sir Richard Branson: “The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.”
But as the rest of the world collectively wrenches at the thought of another mystery meal at 36,000 feet, I have a confession to make: I love airplane food.
That’s right. The plastic tray of overcooked veggies, insipid sauces, and industrial condiments: I crave it. I love the summer sausage and soft, spreadable cheese packets. I love the cold, stone-hard bread, even more when dipped into the plastic tug of hydrogenated oil. I love dumping an entire packet of black pepper over my chicken, which is invariably drowning in a viscous brown sauce of unknown provenance. When the smell from the galley fills the main cabin and the wheels of the service carts start spinning, I shake with anticipation.
I don’t normally admit this. When one of those typical conversations comes up—the ones that start with “and what’s the deal with airline food?”—I shake my head in feigned disgust, offer up some prepackaged dismissal of the genre, and hope the moment passes before my true feelings surface. That’s because we are trained from our first moments of flying to not like airplane food, to mistrust those little trays filled with indistinguishable piles of starch, protein, and plant matter. And, on an objective level, there are plenty of faults to find with the starched salads and dubious cuts of meat served in economy class.
It wasn’t always this way. Meals were once the highlight of air travel. A 1958 Pan Am commercial shows an exuberant couple being fed from a cart containing great hunks of roast beef and holiday ham as the announcer tells us that “delicious food adds to the enjoyment. It’s is prepared in four simultaneously-operating galleys where dishes can be cooked in five-minute ovens.” Back then, federal government strictly regulated airfare prices, so the only way to compete for customers was by offering superior service. That meant rolling meat carts and briny seafood trays and free packs of cigarettes for dessert (really).
What nostalgists who talk about the golden age of flying forget, though, is that air travel back then was a privilege reserved for the rich. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles in 1958 cost $1,580 by today’s dollar. (Four times what it costs today). But all of that changed in 1978, when Congress finally deregulated air travel pricing. The fare wars soon followed, as airlines looked to cut costs elsewhere to make up for the lower ticket prices. Gone were the days of martini carts and caviar service.
Though slashing luxury food items may have been the most conspicuous change, the cut that rocked the industry and inspired a new era of corporate penny-pinching came from American Airlines’ chief Bob Crandall, who in 1987 calculated that removing a single olive from onboard salads would save the company $40,000. In the decades since Crandall’s olive, industry number crunchers have busied themselves with extrapolating the savings found for removing everything from beverage garnishes ($50,000, as United discovered) to salad strawberries ($210,000, for Delta) to those little bags of crushed pretzels ($2.5 million for Continental).
As the realities of sluggish post-9/11 air travel mounted, American carriers dropped domestic meal service altogether, with Continental serving up the industry’s last free economy class meal in October of 2010. Buy-on-board meals are now the standard on domestic flights, turning what was once a major expense into a profit center for airlines, says William McGee, author of the 2012 book Attention All Passengers.
“It’s gone from hot meals to cold meals, cold meals to snacks,” says McGee. “They conditioned us over time that our expectations should be lower and lower. What’s happened conversely at the same time is the quality of food in airports has increased tremendously, which is why a lot more people these days are brown bagging.”
But meals on international flights remain a fundamental part of the aviation equation, with the world’s biggest carriers showing a renewed interest to combat the negative perception and confront the myriad challenges that come with serving food at 36,000 feet.
Let me be clear: I’ve only eaten a handful of meals in my life on an airplane that would satisfy me back on Earth, but when it comes to eating, context is everything. When you take into account all that goes into an airplane meal, all of the immense logistical, financial, and scientific challenges conspiring to make food vanish altogether from the skies, it’s astounding we’re served anything at all.
Those challenges came into focus recently in San Francisco as a few dozen members of Singapore Airlines’ catering staff gathered for two days to test out the fall menu lineup for a chunk of its North American-based routes. Dressed in a mix of chefs’ coats and lab coats, armed with thick binders and clipboards, the group tasted and tweaked their way through nearly 200 first, business, and economy class dishes, taking notes, dispensing criticisms, and logistical concerns, then adjusting until the dishes addressed the laundry list of requirements it takes to make it to your seatback tray.
On the ground, they all looked like winners: lobster dumplings with steamed bok choi and a heady seafood broth; rows of gently steamed, artfully assembled dim sum; composed salads with autumn fruit and rosy curls of Spanish Iberico ham.
“That micro basil is an elegant touch,” whispered one chef to another.