How can we make aeroplane food worth eating?

In 1958 the International Air Transport Organisation upheld a complaint by Pan Am that the sandwiches served by European competitors amounted to “a fancy meal”, ruling in future they must be “unadorned, self-contained and not include such fillings as cavi

New Statesman
Airborne entertainment: a simple but tasty airline meal can relieve the tedium of a long-haul flight. Image: Roger Wright/Getty Images

There’s a lot of time to think at 35,000 feet. And so, as I peel back the foil on yet another plate of soggy, stodgy pasta, I ponder why, with a century of commercial aviation under their belt, airlines still struggle to feed us.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to keep a plane full of fusspots happy with food made two or three days earlier and reheated en masse – but they could do worse than look back at the early days of on-board catering. Food has long been a fixture of the flying experience, initially serving as a distraction from the terrifying realities of taking off, though these days it can seem more akin to a masochistic form of in-flight entertainment. Interwar airship services kept things admirably simple by serving coffee and baskets of sandwiches, but surviving BOAC menus show that meals had definitely upgraded by the Forties, the passengers enjoying salmon with mayonnaise, ox tongue and corned silverside with a variety of salads, followed by peaches and cream. Cold, maybe, but certainly more appetising than much of the warmish (I hesitate to say “hot”) gloop on modern flights.

A mad postwar scramble to secure the loyalty of the small number of wealthy travellers led to a catering war between rival airlines – BEA even branded its London-to-Paris service “The Epicurean”, though in fact it was often less than glamorous. A chef poached from the Ritz by Air France recalled how, in a noisy, unpressurised, violently shaking cabin, heavy with the sickly smell of diesel, few had much of an appetite. “Like most passengers, I became ill. While caring for them, I would run to the bathroom and throw up.”

This golden age of culinary competition was brief, however: by the mid-Fifties, concerns about falling profit margins led the International Air Transport Association to regulate the quality of food served on flights. In 1958 the organisation famously upheld a complaint by Pan Am that the sandwiches served by Lufthansa and other European competitors amounted to “a fancy meal”, ruling that in future they must be “unadorned, self-contained and not include such fillings as caviar, oysters or lobster”.

Yet even the plainest of sarnies would be more welcome than your average modern in-flight meal, which takes its inspiration, if not its recipes, from Raymond Oliver’s advice to the French airline UTA in the early Seventies. Oliver, a three-Michelin-starred chef, recommended serving bistro classics such as coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon: not only would they be comfortingly familiar to most passengers, he said, but the sauces would stop the slow-cooked meat drying out in the galley ovens.

Sound thinking, no doubt, but when was the last time you dined on such things in economy? Those much-hyped celebrity chef menus rarely trickle down any further than business class; in the cheap seats it’s all rubbery chicken breast (not a cut that responds well to reheating) or sad, dry flakes of fish. The spices so welcome at altitude, when our sense of taste is numbed by the change in pressure, are rarely found on non-Asian carriers.

The ridiculous thing is, all this bad food costs us, the passengers, money. It is often claimed that American Airlines saved itself $40,000 a year in catering bills back in the Eighties by removing a single olive from the garnish on each of its salads. One olive. Imagine how much we’re paying for all those stale bread rolls left untouched at the side of the tray, or the mystery dessert that boredom drove you to start but wild horses couldn’t force you to finish.

In 2008, when United announced that it would no longer be offering free economy meals on transatlantic routes, customer outrage forced the carrier to rethink. Clearly passengers are still prepared to pay for anything that breaks up the monotony of travel. I’m not expecting lobster thermidor, or even a lobster sandwich – but is a freshly made cheese-and-pickle bap too much to hope for?