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In defense of...airline food

Do you love or hate airplane food? Our travel editor shares his positive musings on airplane food and shines a light on why it's the way it is.

Can the principles of the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, the right to legal representation, extend beyond people, to a concept for which there is no presumption of innocence, something so universally loathed, panned and joked about, funnily or otherwise, its summarial conviction is but a formality? This is, of course, airline food.

To be sure, there is a considerable amount of terrible airline food. I will not name names here, because the airline industry does not need or deserve another kick in the teeth this year, in addition to having its traffic literally decimated (technically worse, in April) for months at a time. But why on earth would you serve a salty, cheesy, creamy, messy pasta dish to some poor sap who has to sit in an economy seat for 10 hours? Should you just get a big bag of cashews, or finally get around to experimenting with intermittent fasting?

For starters, poor menu choices aside, the kitchens who prepare airline food (Gate Group, LSG, Do&Co, Newrest, etc) work with very strict food safety constraints, and invariably have to overcook the food, and in such a way that it can be safely reheated. The baseline here is a TV dinner. It of course doesn’t help that these culinary professionals - often talented - may have a budget of $2 to work with from the airlines (they may be to blame, yes, but hey - it’s historically been a tough industry). This may change as passengers are increasingly willing to pay for a-la-carte meals.

What happens when these professionals have a more ample budget to work with? One can find out the answer to that by cashing in those credit card miles which have been accumulating for years for an upgrade to a carrier’s international business class, and swapping that turn to the right for a pleasingly ego-reinforcing and sumptuous turn to the left. 

Of course, paying extra cash for the upgrade is not a fantastic value in terms of food-for-money, and is mostly for the lie-flat seat and the real estate it occupies. But when the food is good, plentiful and free - and the wine is flowing - who is willing to forego that experience for a mere hour or two of extra sleep?

As you settle into your comfortably-sized seat, the experience almost invariably begins with a glass of champagne (or maybe a Cava), or a juice or water for the more prudent. After takeoff, then come the warm nuts, which are always welcome and take the edge off the hunger. You make a wine selection, nearly always good quality, and flight attendants will dutifully keep your glass full.

Then the appetizer course, served with real silverware, which is often soup or consomme, some charcuterie or sushi, some light vegetables. At this point you are settled in, and watching some guilty-pleasure movie you had been saving for the plane, to have a ready excuse. Then comes the main course (pasta or meat is a good choice: poor fish is just too difficult to reheat while maintaining a reasonable consistency), and of course dessert, and of course the cheese plate, complete with a selection of dessert wines. 

Some airlines (reliant on their corresponding catering kitchens) are standouts - gulf carriers Turkish, Emirates, Qatar, Japanese carriers ANA and JAL, even continental offerings like Air France, Swiss and Iberia without 5-Star Skytrax ratings. And at this level, any decent airline will offer a special and indulgent experience.

Okay, so defending airline food with evidence from business class is a total cop out, and totally irrelevant to most trips and most people, certainly ours.  But if you must, blame the airline’s Finance department and not the professionals, who are scraping together economy meals with considerable budgetary and logistical constraints. 

And if you have the miles, consider splurging on an upgrade and satisfyingly gorging yourself in an environment refreshingly free of distractions; afterwards, you can always recline and digest in style, and of course, wait for the snack or breakfast, if you’re able to even contemplate more food before arriving, already sated, to your destination.

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