Airline food used to be plentiful, luxurious. This is what happened

Airline food used to be plentiful, luxurious. This is what happened

If you took an American Airlines flight in the 1960s, you would be pampered and dined from the “Royal Coachman” menu in Coach class. Your meal starts with a beef consommé and continues to saute chicken breast in wine. Keeping fruit tartlets for dessert?

Today, if you fly coach, you have to book a long-haul international flight or – maybe if you’re lucky – a coast-to-coast domestic flight to receive the free meal. On shorter flights, you may get a choice of complementary Biscoff cookies or pretzels.

Airplane food has fallen far from the heyday of in-flight dining when airlines served white-tablecloth dinners and flight attendants scrambled eggs in the air. Missing food has joined the long list of pain points, inconveniences and reductions experienced by travelers when they fly today. But industry cost-cutting isn’t the only reason your tartlets are disappearing. The end of in-flight meals for most passengers follows major changes in government regulations, aircraft design, in-flight entertainment, industry tax breaks, and heightened health and safety concerns.

Airline safety protocols and regulations since September 11 have changed the types of cooking knives that aircrew can use. Airplane galleys are smaller to allow more passenger seats in the airplane. And airlines don’t provide some foods, like peanuts, to protect people with allergies. So the food is often smaller, blander or non-existent.

“Food service used to be a point of pride,” said Henry Harteveldt, who covers the travel industry for the Atmosphere Research Group. Now, “the quality is so bad, you have to wonder: Do airline executives actually have taste?”

Airlines have long sought ways to reduce food production costs and reduce meal preparation time for flight attendants on board. In one famous example in the 1980s, Robert Crandall, then head of American Airlines, bragged about how removing just one olive from every salad saved the airline $40,000 a year.

Cost and speed became more important to airlines than how the food tasted ever since. Airlines like Singapore Airlines or Delta may have partnerships with Michelin-starred celebrity chefs, but most companies outsource their food to catering services that may prepare it hours in advance.

“People are willing to trade food for low fares,” said Blaise Waguespack, a professor of aviation marketing at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. “Your ticket gets you a seat. And anything beyond the seat you pay for.”

Charging passengers for in-flight meals — even just a few dollars for a sandwich, snack box or cheese plate — is also a way for airlines to save on taxes. Domestic airfares are subject to a federal excise tax of 7.5%, but that tax does not apply to baggage fees and onboard meals, both of which are increasingly expensive.

Free caviar and gum
Food on airplanes has been around for almost a century, since the 1920s when flight attendants handed out chewing gum to passengers to relieve the pressure in their ears. Early airplanes bounced so much in flight that food was served on paper plates, according to the Smithsonian.

For decades, the federal government controlled airline fares and routes, so airlines tried to differentiate themselves with service, food and the kind of luxuries typically afforded cruise passengers — or Bond villains.

Until 1978, when the airline industry was deregulated, the law required that every passenger get an entrée, two vegetables, a salad, a dessert and a drink as part of their ticket price, according to the Smithsonian.

“Delicious food adds to the fun. It is prepared in four kitchens operating simultaneously, where meals can be cooked in the oven in five minutes,” Pan Am advertised in a 1958 ad.

In the 1960s and 1970s, airlines routinely installed sky-high kitchens on board and advertised their menus to attract customers.

Beef is a business strategy.

“Airlines compete in services and facilities. Food service is a big focus [of the competition] because entertainment options are more limited,” said Harteveldt. “Airlines will have teams of chefs, their own catering kitchens [and] advertising around the food.”

When deregulation took place, airlines reduced ticket prices. But to make up for the loss of revenue, they cut back on food options and other services as well.

The September 11th attacks hastened the decline of free airline meals. Airlines faced a reduction in demand and reduced in-flight food service in response. United, American Airlines, Delta and others announced sharp reductions in in-flight food service shortly after the attacks.

The last holdout, Continental Airlines, became the last major airline to end free domestic meals in economy class in 2010.

Airline food has been the subject of jokes and criticism for decades, but now people miss it. Some aviation industry experts see them returning in the near future in coach.

The reality is very different for business and first class passengers.

Molly Brandt, executive chef of culinary innovation for North America at in-flight catering company Gategroup, says that “the golden age of airline food is upon us.” It just depends on the airline you fly and the category you belong to. “It’s broken down by cabin class,” he explained.

If you’re in first class on an American flight, for example, you might have lunch options like Mediterranean bowls, chicken breast with mojo sauce, Poblano black bean rice and plantains or penne pasta with ragu and plant-based ricotta. For Delta, choose between a cheeseburger, spinach and cheese agnolotti, or Hempler’s smoked pepper chicken breast salad.

A few airlines even offer caviar to first class passengers. But most flyers today don’t get free gumballs.

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