Airline in-flight food has been on my mind of late. I’m lucky enough to have some overseas trips coming up later this year, including some long-haul flights, which means I’ll be staring down those little foil-wrapped trays and their sometimes questionable contents. While The Husband and son both devour anything put in front of them and both profess a distinct fondness for it, I’m not a fan of airline food at all. I’ve never had a bread roll in a plane that approached anything like an edible state and the frequently overheated concoctions resting under the foil lids seem to all taste the same to me.
The quality and taste of in-flight food is something of a vexed issue for airlines – and not just because of the limitations they face in relation to economics, storage space and reheating options. The combination of altitude, low humidity, pressurised cabins and the impact upon our other senses of the ambient noise and vibrations in a plane all impact on our sense of taste. In fact we can lose approximately 30% of our ability to taste when in flight. The lack of moisture in the atmosphere causes drying of the mouth resulting in that nasty “cotton-mouth” feeling and our sense of taste is so dulled that food may taste as if it has up to 20% less salt and sugar than it actually does. To make up for this, many airlines over-salt and over-sugar their food, but because we all taste these flavours in different measure the results of this are going to be pretty variable.
Airlines around the world have been tackling these problems for some time now – hence the sea of famous chef faces bobbing up on airline ads. Heston Blumenthal, Joel Rubichon and Neil Perry are names that appear on some dishes, but most of their efforts are focused on the customers in the pointy end of the plane. Having said that, improved technology in the appliances used to chill and reheat the prepared meals have meant that even dinner being served to those of us to the right of the entrance door may not be the dismal affair it once was.
The problem of dulled taste becomes especially hairy when selecting and serving wine on planes. Those who get to turn left at the door, into the spacious, hushed and golden Business or *gasp* First class sections still face these same problems as those of us down the back in steerage. The food served in these zones will be prepared more attentively and lovingly, but your favourite tipple of red – or more particularly white – wine is not going to taste as splendid as you might expect. To counteract this, airline wine consultants seek out wines with more intense flavours and richer, fruitier bouquets.
The current surge in the popularity of cooking shows and food in general means that many airline passengers have greater expectations when it comes to their meals, particularly on those pesky long-haul flights when a meal breaks up the boredom and distracts one from the discomfort of being strapped into an area roughly the size of a biscuit tin. Airlines are painfully aware of this and are taking their food service much more seriously in these days of fierce competition for bums on seats. When prices are cut to the bone and often close in comparison, a reputation for quality of food becomes a real point of difference. As a passenger, there’s not too much that you can do to improve your dining experience given the atmospheric conditions in a plane so my only advice would be to taste your food first, then season liberally and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. That’s what I’ll be doing.