In writing this blog I did a little research into what people think of airline food. The responses were rather dismal. One friend reported that the only thing more tedious than the in-flight meals was the in-flight entertainment. Another apparently insists on ordering two of every meal on long haul flights, not because of hunger, but because the uncertainty of fully digesting the second serve is invariably more entertaining than conversation with the stranger next to him. Meanwhile, acquaintances forced to fly economy are even more severe in their appraisal, rating their servings on par with the prospect of a mid-air emergency.
But why are we so harsh on airline food? The whole process is alleged to be a high tech service based on cutting edge science to ensure freshness, flavour and quality. Unbelievable, perhaps, but it’s a fact that airlines spend millions of dollars every year looking to improve the dining experience for their mostly ungrateful customers. So what’s gone wrong with the process? Let’s check-in and find out what’s going on.
Welcome aboard: The Planning
As you cram yourself, your partner and your two screaming children in at the back of plane, the in-flight service is probably the last thing on your mind. You may instead be wondering if you can sell a kidney at your holiday destination so you can fly home in business class. Although your mind is on other things, the airline has been planning your meal to the finest detail for weeks or even months. In-flight menus are not random ideas a cook knocked together in the morning. Many airlines employ world class-chef’s to create their offerings using their knowledge of cultural preferences, supply chains and industrial scale cooking techniques.
Yet the Head Chef’s role is not just to create a tasty meal (some might say not even), but rather to use their foodie knowledge to master the financial aspects of the catering process. For instance Qantas Airways services over 180 destinations in 44 countries every year and serves an astonishing 37million meals on more than 266 000 flights. The sheer volume of ingredients and the supply chains are just staggering, so a clever chef who can cut a good deal, or cut waste can save the airline thousands. American Airlines saved $40000/year alone from its catering bill simply by removing one olive from every garden salad it served. Give that Chef a promotion!
Strap yourself in for: The Preparation
Once Chef has finalised his cooking techniques, allocated portion sizes to and done the deals with his suppliers, he sends his book of recipes to the catering centre. Every recipe is perfected to ensure that your industrially processed serve is consistent to the metric gram in quality and food hygiene standards. Producing millions of meals every year is no small task so catering centres for all airlines are usually located at or very near airports. Inside, the centres feature a whole host of hi-tech environments; from sterilisation equipment and sterile preparation areas through to clever industrial food processors, (steam) ovens, grills and stoves. It might come as a surprise then that despite the volumes involved and even with all the advanced production features, the majority of airline food is still prepared by hand. Once done, the food is then snap frozen and delivered ready for your flight, where it will be re-heated in a typical convection oven before heading for your tray table.
Chicken or beef? Mile High Flavour
So a lot of effort and energy has been put into delivering this culinary offering to your seat. Yet before you even look at it, your appetite has left you. Sensory scientists investigating the reasons for this have discovered that at altitude, the low cabin pressure and low humidity dry out our noses and mouths and this reduces our ability to smell and taste the food. Other studies have shown that loud music (especially Heavy Metal), or even din from the jet engines further reduces our taste and flavour senses. Some estimates suggest the cabin environment reduces our ability to detect sweet and salty flavours by around 30% while airborne.
This is known anecdotally as the Bloody Mary phenomenon, where travellers in the air describe the salty astringent flavour as delicious, but on the ground find the same drink unpalatable. To counter this, airline chefs create dishes stuffed full of Umami flavours and stock wines with bold, sharp characteristics, in an attempt to illicit stronger flavour responses. So if you can actually taste something it is because chef has loaded the serving with MSG and selected a wine that would strip paint from a gutter. Its counter intuitive and a touch ironic, that what you find bland and inedible in the air, is probably over seasoned and inedible on the ground.
We hoped you enjoyed your flight
While getting to your destination might be half the fun, next time you are served something on that fancy little tray, take a moment to appreciate the effort that has gone into its preparation. Your meal is an edible monument to the science and technology that goes into making it and that alone should be enough to make your taste buds come alive. So be brave, tuck in and enjoy your flight.