A Food & Travel Blog

In-Flight Airline Food – The Battle to Beat Bland

12/04/2013 | By

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.



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  1. Tandy

    I order diabetic meals which are usually better. Enjoy your trips 🙂

  2. marcellina

    Having never travelled business class or first class I literally gasped when I realised the second pic is the meal served in these classes! And here I was thinking I was quite happy with the meals served in economy on Emirates during our flight to Italy late last year! Wow, I hope I get bumped up to first class one day (sigh)!

  3. Hotly Spiced

    I love the photo of the water that says, ‘Drinking Water’. What else would they expect you to do with it? xx

  4. marcellina

    Heh, heh, I just realised I said the second pic (economy) no I mean the third pic. Very classy!

  5. Saline

    Always carry fresh chilis!

  6. InTolerant Chef

    How exciting to be traveling, where are you going this time?
    One of Heston’s tips is to use a saline nasal spray before eating as it clears and moistens your sinuses, making the food taste more intense. I tried that on our trip on Scoot airlines to Singapore and it really did work….. unfortunately 🙁

  7. Kate

    I travelled both Business Class and Economy last year to Europe and the Qantas economy food outweighed by far the Swiss Air business class cuisine !! I do find eating from plastic containers unless on a picnic very off putting though.

  8. Maureen | Orgasmic Chef

    Back in the day we traveled first class or business and the food IS good, no complaints there. Now that we have to fly cattle crate, I always pack some food. The hint about saline spray is absolutely true for the food as well as the dryness on the plane.

  9. Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella

    A few years ago I was fortunate enough to get a behind the scenes tour of how airline food is made in Dubai at Emirates’s facility. It was fascinating and they explained why the bread rolls are never very good!

  10. Liz O'L

    No food would influence my choice of airline. it ‘ s price and space and connections