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Why Is Airplane Food So Bad?

What’s the deal with airplane food? It’s more than a Seinfeldian crack, it’s the eternal question of all passengers on long flights – why is airline food so awful? 

So, why is airplane food so bad? It’s a combination of factors.

  • Due to the changes in air pressure at altitude, your sense of smell and taste is not the same as it is normally.
  • It takes a long time between preparing the food until it arrives at your tray table.
  • Dryness due to reheating in the airplane microwave.
  • The food is mass produced, not always paying enough attention to detail.

Of course, if you can afford to fly first-class, you’re probably too busy enjoying your five-star three-course meals with complimentary chardonnay and mimosas to take note of those rumors. For the rest of us – is airline food really that bad? Why is it so notorious in the first place?

It’s Not Just You

Jerry Seinfeld isn’t the only one taking aim at airplane food. Publications as diverse as Time, The Telegraph, the BBC, The Atlantic, and Huffpost have all taken a swing at airline swill.

No less a chef than Gordon Ramsay has said “There’s no [expletive] way I eat on planes,” in part because of his past experience working for airlines giving him insight into “where this food’s been and where it goes, and how long it took before it got on board.”

Typical in flight meal
Eric Salard Typical in flight meal

While it wouldn’t be a Gordon Ramsay culinary critique without the expletive, he has a point. Plane food is objectively different than “normal” food. The elevation, security checks, airline logistics, and other factors all factor into that difference, and mostly for the worse.

But Maybe it Is You

Or is it you who’s actually the problem?

Well, not you personally, but there is some truth to the idea that airlines may be less to blame for the bad food than our bodies’ responses to loud noise.

In particular, researchers have found that loud noises, such as those present in airplane cabins, can make sweet foods less potent and more salty and savory flavors more robust.

A study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception pitted participants in quiet rooms against those in conditions similar to a plane cabin.

The result? Participants had a harder time tasting sweeter flavors while things such as bacon and soy sauce tasted more intense than “normal.”

Does that candy or ice cream you ordered onboard taste bland?

Does the sauce slathered over the “pasta or chicken” you ordered taste off, or “too” savory?

This may be part of the reason why. As you may know, your nose, ears, and throat are connected. What impacts one can impact the others. With the added pressure on your ears due to the noise and elevation, your sense of taste is impacted as well.

This also helps explain some of the menu choices you’ll find on airlines. Ever wonder why tomatoes and tomato juice are relatively common on planes? It, like bacon and salt, is an umami flavor, which is the category of taste felt more intensely in air cabin-like conditions.

Service on board SAS DC 9 21 in 1969
SAS Museum Norway Service on board SAS DC-9-21 in 1969

Even if passengers don’t know the science behind it, there are signs they can intuit what tastes better while airborne. In 2008, Lufthansa staffers noticed that they were getting as many orders for tomato juice as beer.

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Germans do love their beer (who doesn’t love German beer?), but the comparable popularity of tomato juice was a surprise. Scientific insights such as this help explain why.

The next time you’re flying, therefore, and you’re given a choice between soup or salad, you may want to consider choosing whichever one contains more salt or tomato juice (assuming you can stand the taste of either even at ground level, of course).

Long Waits

One reason for the distastefulness of airline food is the fact that, as Ramsay alludes to, it takes a long time for them to be loaded onto the plane. The air pressure in cabins while planes are cruising makes it difficult to prepare fresh food onboard.

That means everything has to be prepared well in advance, frozen – likely with antifreeze or something else that can keep it frozen for long periods of time – and then thawed, warmed, and served.

If you’ve ever reheated pizza, veggies, or other dishes in the microwave after the first serving, you know how that can kill the flavor, destroy the texture, and just make it taste far worse.

Now imagine doing that with food that has likely been frozen for far longer, with antifreeze at that, in special microwave ovens, and all in conditions that aren’t conducive to cooking in the first place.

We should spare some sympathy for the attendants and airline chefs trying to cook in those conditions. In a way, for as awful as airline food may be, given those conditions, we should almost be amazed it isn’t far worse.

Airline Dryness

Another common problem with airline food is the fact that it has a reputation for dryness. Whether you order the steak, fish, chicken, or anything else, what we so often get looks less like steak than reheated dehydrated cardboard.

And that’s pretty much what it is, except for the cardboard bit (much as it may taste that way). As stated, food onboard is less cooked fresh than it is reheated.

First class service on board SAS DC 8 33
SAS Museum Norway First class service on board SAS DC-8-33

As stated above, if you reheat things in your microwave at home, it often starts to lose its taste. The same is true for losing moisture and softness.

Microwave a McDonald’s Big Mac, and you’ll get a tasteless rubbery disc. Do the same thousands of feet in the air, and you’ll get that same tasteless disc as your in-flight dinner.

Ironically, some of the things airlines do to try and mask that dryness can actually make the food’s overall distastefulness even more apparent.

For example, your meat, veggies, mashed potatoes, and other items will likely come to you drenched in sauce. That isn’t just to try and mask the flavor – it’s also to try and get some moisture back into these meals after the reheating process has sucked them dry.

Mass Service

Let’s be fair to flight attendants for a moment – they have a really hard job. They have to be on their feet for hours at a time, keep crazy hours sometimes to make flights, and deal with rude, sexist, drunk, or otherwise difficult passengers.

Even if everyone on the flight is nice, they have to deal with hundreds of passengers. That means preparing hundreds of meals and that combined with the fact that they’re not exactly Gordon Ramsay Michelin Star chefs means airline food often emphasizes quantity over quality.

Think about how your meal is served to you. While some airlines may give you plates, even more likely – especially for economy class flights – are TV dinner-style trays. These trays are easy to manufacture, easy to stay, and come with already prepackaged, ready to reheat and serve.

This makes for a meal serving process that is less about culinary excellence and more about assembly line efficiency. Your meal hasn’t been carefully prepared by a chef with years of experience and an eye for quality or creativity. It’s been churned out and served as quickly as possible.

Things weren’t always this way. As noted in a 2016 BBC article, once upon a time crew manifests were smaller, flying was more of a luxury experience, and that meant more time and attention to detail could be paid to people’s food.

From the 1960s onward, however, as airlines became more affordable to the general public, focus has shifted from a luxury experience to mass travel. The luxury experience lives on in first-class, but for the rest of us, subpar mass produced food is part of the price we pay for a more affordable ticket.

Attempts at Improvements

To once again be fair to airlines, they’ve heard all those “airplane food jokes” too, and instead of laughing them off or getting angry, leading airline companies have tried to do something about it.

First Class Dinner being served on board SAS Huge Viking Boeing 747
SAS Museum Norway First Class Dinner being served on board SAS Huge Viking Boeing 747 in 1972

Sometimes that means hiring an expert chef to advise on food production, or which types of food might work best given the airborne setting. 

Gordon Ramsay has advised Singapore Airlines in the past. Virgin snatched up another celebrity chef, Luke Mangan, to help with food for the Australian wing of the company.

Air France has called upon Joel Robuchon, while British Airways has turned to Fat Duck’s own Heston Blumenthal. The latter case was captured in a documentary for Channel 4.

On the one hand, this certainly has helped in some cases. After all, one of the issues listed above is that flight attendants typically have neither the time nor training to turn out high-quality meals.

Talent goes a long way, so when instead of those flight attendants you have a world-class chef advising, it shouldn’t be surprising that airline entrees have indeed improved in recent years.

However, unless you’re prepared to shell out the money to fly first-class, you probably won’t be able to taste many of those improvements for yourself.

For example, while Robuchon advised for air France, it was only for their La Première menu. 

On Emirates, first-class passengers have seen improvements, with everything from Iranian caviar to lobster tail to glazed duck breast being on the menu.

However, if you’re stuck riding coach with most of the passengers, it’s the same old cube-shaped chicken for you.

So, “What’s the deal with airline food?” Quite a lot – some of which can and has changed, and some of which will keep us making those “airplane food jokes” for the foreseeable future.

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