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« Arts Connoisseur? Or Dirty Old Man? | Main | Happiness Wars »

February 22, 2006

The Incredible Disappearing Airline Meal

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For eons, it seemed, everyone was complaining about meals served on airliners.

By "everyone" I mean those ink- or mayonnaise-stained wretches on newspaper staffs with nothing much else to write about. Or maybe aging gourmets (gourmands?) who got their first taste of airline food in 1934 flying on a leisurely three-hour Imperial Airways' Handley Page 42 biplane trip from Croyden to LeBourget.

Hannibal over Croyden.jpg
Handley Page 42 over Croyden.

Imperial Silver Wing Service - 1927.jpg
Imperial Airways Silver Wing Service, 1927.

Actually, aside from a few luxury routes, most airline meals weren't worth a Michelin rating. In some cases, the meal would be cold chicken and a roll. I was issued such a meal once when I flew on a DC-4 from Korea to Japan on Air America, an airline operated by the CIA.

All of my commercial flying experience was during the Jet Age, so I can't comment on 1946-1960 food service. But the meals I got in pre-deregulation days seemed okay. For example, on long-distance dinner-hour flights, American Airlines from time to time offered small steaks. Granted, the food wasn't what could be found in better restaurants, but what should one expect at 34,000 feet? -- I found it hard to take the criticism seriously.

I liked airline meals because, in those days, I was a nervous flyer and focusing on the meal for 30 minutes or so kept my attention from those flapping wingtips visible out the window.

One reason why those regulation-era meals could include steaks was that when ticket prices were fixed and the aircraft were pretty similar, food, booze, skimpy stew outfits and other amenities were the main tools airlines could use to entice passengers from competitors. As deregulation took hold, airlines realized that price of the flight was more important to most passengers than quality of food and drink.

Thus began the shift from eating in planes to eating in air terminals. I first noticed this in the early 1980s at the Minneapolis airport when a McDonalds magically appeared. Neato! I could get a quick, predictable snack instead of paying significantly more money at a "captive" coffee house operated by Host International or somesuch firm.

Nowadays most larger airports have many food outlets where travelers can get their fill before or after their trip. Last year Seattle-Tacoma International completed a major terminal renovation and its centerpiece is a large food court featuring a huge window with views of the runway and (weather and daylight permitting) the Olympic Mountains.

SeaTac Food Hall.jpg
Seattle-Tacoma's new food court.

In that general area can be found fast-food burgers from Wendy's, two seafood bars, take-out Mexican, Pizza, a Starbucks, a table-service seafood restaurant and a couple other take-out places. Close by are a Sbarro outlet and a microbrew bar & grill. And there's more when you head out the gate-wings.

The main problem I encounter is finding a place to sit (I usually travel when the airport is pretty busy).

So terminals offer more and more dining choices while airlines offer less and less food. On my most recent Alaska Airlines flight from San Jose to Seattle all I got was a little plastic cup filled with lots of ice and a dab of Coca-Cola. I didn't even get the usual tiny packet of "Gourmet Party Snacks."

Regulations keep changing. Only snacks need be provided on domestic flights less than a certain distance. Longer flights must have meal service, though now airlines can charge extra for such in-flight meals. Here is what American Airlines currently offers.

On our recent trip from Los Angeles to Honolulu on American, The Fiancée and I opted to eat before flight-time and to forego the extra-cost meals.

We will be flying to Frankfurt in September and, as best I can tell, American will be kind enough to feed us something "for free" during the ten-ish hours aloft each way. We'll probably be happy to get fed.

And as for the critics of airline food, if trends continue, pretty soon there will be nothing to complain about.



posted by Donald at February 22, 2006


The discounters like Southwest and Jet Blue do just fine without meal service. I'll take their lower fares over even fancy in-flight meals any day.

Posted by: Peter on February 22, 2006 10:22 PM

keeping kosher makes it doubly difficult. now you can only get kosher food on overseas flight (the extra-cost meals on domestic flights are not kosher), and since there are no kosher restaurants in any airports (as far as i'm aware) if you don't come prepared, a flight from new york to los angeles, for example, can you leave u very hungry. . .

Posted by: bit'snpieces on February 23, 2006 12:38 AM

The best in-flight food I ever had was a warm ham and cheese sandwich a few years ago, when whatever airline that was started getting away from the fancy dinners. Excellent ham, excellent cheese, and too simple to mess up. I think much of the problem with airline food was just trying to be too elaborate -- serving gourmet meals in TV-dinner format and preparation, and it never worked as well as it should.

On the other hand, the worst in-flight food I ever had was a burrito I still remember with a shudder. There was a grimly determined flight attendant passing out cold burritos, and as she went by, you could see people one by one unwrapping their burrito, biting into it, discovering it to be inedible, and wrapping it back up to hand to the flight attendant with the garbage bag later. Not one passenger got past the first bite in that burrito, yet the flight attendant went on passing them out anyway as some kind of exercise in sadly comic futility.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on February 23, 2006 1:31 AM

If you'd like a detailed account of airline service, seating and general ambience in days far gone by, you can do worse than reading Agatha Christie's Death in the Clouds, in which the plot itself turns on such details as the collection of coffee spoons after the meal on a flight crossing the English Channel.

Posted by: mr tall on February 23, 2006 5:06 AM

Ah, the McDonald's in Minneapolis. I used to carefully save my funds when I headed home to Seattle from college in Chicago in the mid 1980s so I could afford a Quarter Pounder with Cheese on the layover. What a relief from airline food that was!

Donald, do you know anything about the history of food courts? As a kid, the first food court I can remember was the Food Circus at Seattle Center -- in fact, I don't recall seeing anything like it anywhere else until over a decade later. To this day, I often refer to food courts as food circuses, and I wonder if Seattle Center's Food Circus was a pioneer.

Posted by: Dave Munger on February 23, 2006 9:10 AM

Mr. Tall, you beat me to Christie. The meals arrangements/luggage handling/steward occupations are the most delighful memory of that novel- which I read on the Northwestern's plane to Detroit a few years back. Bummer!

Posted by: Tatyana on February 23, 2006 10:30 AM

Portland's airport has some very good restaurants, including one that serves decent chili in a sourdough bowl.

But, Starbucks?

Has anybody besides me noticed that Starbucks burns their coffee in the roasting process? That acrid taste is just not right.

Best coffee in America (which is completely beside the point, I know)... Cafe Trieste in North Beach in San Francisco. Coffee is roasted right next door.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on February 23, 2006 10:47 AM

If it's a novel about airline food you want, how about Arthur Hailey's RUNWAY ZERO-EIGHT? Hailey would go on to another more famous novel dealing with air transportation themes (AIRPORT), but this one, published in the mid-'50s, had a plot that may sound a bit familiar. On a cross-country flight (the country is Canada in this case), the in-flight meal is your choice between two entrees (I seem to recall it was chicken and seafood, but it's been a while since I read the book). Unfortunately, both the pilot and the co-pilot choose the same thing, which turns out to give everybody who eats it food poisoning. The only person left on the plane who can fly at all is a former RAF Spitfire pilot who hasn't touched a stick since the War (but fortunately opted for the chicken entree), so he ends up having to fly the airliner while somebody on the ground talks him down over the radio.

The book itself has been filmed a couple of times (I seem to remember one version with Doug McClure as a former Vietnam War helicopter pilot), the plot has been used elsewhere a few times (didn't the Incredible Hulk end up in the pilot's seat during one of his TV outings?), and it was most memorably spoofed in AIRPLANE!

Novels about airline food...that has to be a niche category.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on February 23, 2006 12:28 PM

I remember Runway Zero-Eight, having read an old paperback copy when I was a teenager.
The same theme was done to comedic effect in the movie Airplane.

Posted by: Peter on February 23, 2006 12:43 PM

As a service brat, I remember taking Military Air Transport Service flights to Europe in C-47s or something like that (C-119?) where the seats were made of webbing, the plane had no windows and we were all given box lunches. I loved it. Now that's flying!

Posted by: Robert Speirs on February 23, 2006 4:17 PM

All -- Interesting observations and war stories! Allow me to cherry-pick a couple for further comment.

Dwight -- I understand that it's either airline SOP or government regulation that flight deck crew do not eat the same entree. (Though something must have happened to bring that into play in the first place. Likely something pretty bad.)

Shouting -- This is off-topic, but I can't resist. Although I can harbly distinguish between gourmet coffee and swill, the best stuff I've had recently was a likely-Kona blend at a local Honolulu coffee chain. At Starbucks all I order is drip coffee and, given a choice, I tend to ask for the milder variety. BTW, I'm even more clueless about wines (well, the stuff they made along the Hudson River around 1970 was pretty awful, I have to say).

Robert -- Gee, 47s and 119s must have been pretty much phased out by 1960. When did you fly in them? Oh, I once flew in a C-124 on the Kimpo-Tachikawa run.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 23, 2006 9:10 PM

Fly Singapore Air. They have delicious food - at least the Asian options were delicious (I love Asian food and didn't get around to trying the Western).

Although they appear to base the serving size on the belief that most of their passengers have just finished cycling the Silk Route and need feeding up pronto.

Posted by: Tracy W on February 27, 2006 11:58 PM

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