Plane food – almost every stand-up comic in the 1990s devoted a portion of their act to it. Notoriously bad-tasting meals, eaten with tiny cutlery in the smallest possible space. How far has airline food come since those days of ridicule?
How to Cook at 30,000ft
The food served on planes isn’t your average supermarket fare. For a start, it usually looks like this: something between a ready meal, a packed lunch and a takeaway.
But it’s actually really difficult to cook for airline passengers. There are the obvious barriers – like getting a kitchen onto a plane – and the more obscure details – like the impact of altitude on flavour.
Meals are always precooked, to be reheated during flight. And they’re made in specialist facilities, like United Airlines’ Chelsea Food Service, which produces 33,000 meals every day. Meals are cooked fresh – with no more than eight hours between cook time and flight time – with real ingredients, by trained cooks.
No conveyor belts or automation in sight.
That’s all very promising – but part of the bad reputation plane food gets comes down to the way our senses change in the environment of a plane cabin.
Altitude and Taste Buds
Airline passengers can experience a reduction in their sense of taste of up to 30%. While cabin pressure is raised to a healthy value, it does drop quite a bit. You can see the effect quite clearly when you take a sealed packet onto a plane – it inflates to an unexpected new size, like a balloon.
The cool filtered air, reduced pressure and low-humidity combine to dry your tongue and nose out to the point that food and drinks start losing sweet and salty flavours. It’s certainly not ideal, usually calling for additional seasoning to help the flavour out.
Fine Dining at the Top of the World
Depending on the price of your ticket, the food you’ll be served in-flight will vary dramatically. First class passengers get food served on plates, with (although still tiny) real metal cutlery. And the menu is more exciting, with more variety than in economy class – think steaks, gourmet cheeses and separate elements, rather than “one pot” meals.
It’s becoming more common for economy flights to do away with in-flight meals altogether – opting for paid extras to be served if passengers start to feel the hunger.
But is there such thing as fine dining in-flight?
Most people would say that there isn’t. A flying plane isn’t ever going to be the environment to expect Michelin star cuisine. It’s a small, pressurised metal tube built to travel – not a restaurant.
But Etihad is one airline that hasn’t backed down from the challenge of providing an A-list experience. The Residence is Etihad’s $38,000 (one way) flight experience. The 125 square foot private cabin includes a real dining table – not to mention personal butler service.
Even still, most world-class chefs agree that a gastronomic epiphany is unlikely to happen on a plane. But good eating doesn’t always have to be fancy – and this professional airline food critic shows that in-flight meals can be taken for what they are – and still be tasty.