As long as passengers have been flying, they've been disappointed by the quality of in-flight meals. But why? After 90 years of commercial air flight, why haven't airlines been able to design menus that can survive the scrutiny of diners at 30,000 feet? Is it because airline food really sucks, or is it because we just think it sucks? In truth, it's a little of both. But airlines are making surprising strides to fix both.
Even before you take into account the other practicalities that come into play when you try to feed people in a pneumatic tube 30,000 feet in the air, a meal you serve on an airplane will always taste worse than a meal served on the ground. "When you travel at a high altitude, your sense of taste isn't the same as it is in a restaurant," says Peter Wilander, managing director of onboard services at Delta. The reasons for this primarily have to do with humidity ... or, rather, a lack thereof.
The cabins of airplanes are pressurized with an extremely low humidity level of just 4%, largely to reduce the risk of internal corrosion; the only humidity in an airplane cabin comes from other people's breath. The problem with low humidity, though, is it causes our sinuses to close. This is why you always feel as if you have a slight cold when you fly. Simultaneously, the low humidity dries your food out quicker than it happens on the ground. Since smell and moisture are such important aspects of the way we taste things—consider the way an apple tastes like a potato when you hold your nose, or how steaks are more flavorful when cooked rare than well-done—airplane food has a star subtracted from it from the Zephyr Zagat guide from the get-go just because of cabin air quality.
But preparation is also a major issue. According to Wilander, Delta serves more than 9 million in-flight meals every year. None of these meals can be cooked on-board: there's simply no room for a working kitchen, let alone a staff to man it. Instead, every meal served on an airplane is prepared ahead of time, chilled or frozen, and then warmed back up in on-board convection ovens. For economy passengers, this means mass-produced meals that are frozen and then reconstituted. Even in business class, the meals being served aren't fresh. While each meal will have been individually prepared by a catering company at the airport instead of mass-produced and purchased in bulk, a business-class customer can still look forward to a meal that is at least several hours old before it has been served. Delta is hardly alone in this: in fact, this is the standard for the entire airline industry. Why? Because it's the only practical solution to the problem of in-flight service.
But there are psychological issues at play that make airline food taste worse to us, too.
"In-flight meals have always been just as much about staving off boredom as hunger," says Guillaume de Syon, a professor of history at Albright College. Ever since the days of airships, when zeppelins like the Hindenburg would slowly float across the Atlantic on long three-day trips, meals have been used to distract passengers from the crushing monotony of flight. When there's nothing else to do but sit in a chair and look at the back of someone's head, meals become something to look forward to. But their faults also become something to scrutinize. The result is that even the best airline meals have a hard time holding up to the critical eye of bored, stuffed-up passengers at 30,000 feet.
"It's unfortunate, because the airlines are really between a rock and a hard place when it comes to food," de Syon says. "Passengers look forward to meals on long flights, but they're also more disappointed by what they are served than they would be on the ground."
Dehydration. Preparation. Boredom. These are the things that make airline food suck. So what can be done about them?
When it comes to the problem of humidity, airlines have tried to design their menus around issues of dehydration and reduced sense of taste for decades. Airlines have tended to embrace entrees with a lot of sauce to account for the lack of humidity in-cabin. Through the 1970s and 1980s, in-flight meals tended to also be much saltier than they are today, because saltiness is a taste that is undiminished when our sinuses are closed. As the public became more concerned about sodium intake, though, making in-flight meals saltier to liven up a meal's otherwise environmentally diminished taste has fallen out of favor. Instead, a big trend in airline menus is Indian food, a cuisine that favors the combination of moist sauces with enough spices to blast right through a passenger's walled-up sinuses.
In the last couple of years, they have been some other interesting experiments in improving the quality of airline food. In 2011, UK celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal tried to tackle the problem of reduced taste sensations by teaming up with British Airways and designing a new business-class menu. At first, Blumenthal tried to convince passengers to snort a sinus-clearing nasal spray before they ate, but when that solution proved unpopular, he discovered another taste that traveled well to 35,000: umami, the savory taste imparted by things like sardines, mushrooms, soy sauce, and seaweed. The result was a recipe for shepherd's pie with seaweed in the crust that tastes just as good on the ground as it does in the sky.
According to Wilander, chefs like Heston Blumenthal are incredibly important to the future of in-flight cuisine, which is why Delta is increasingly teaming up with celebrity gourmets, like Iron Chef Michelle Bernstein and Michael Chiarello to plan their business-class menus. And Delta's not the only ones: other airlines that have approached famous chefs include Qantas, American Airlines, Air France, Qatar, and more.
"Airline food has always been a kind of cliché, because it's simply not the same quality you get on the ground," Wilander says. "That's why we're working with talented chefs, people who have proven first and foremost that they have an intellectual curiosity about food, who are willing to roll up their sleeves and try to solve the unique challenges that come with trying to serve restaurant-quality food at 30,000 feet."
De Syon agrees. "Celebrity chefs are absolutely making a difference," he says. And as an added bonus, they are helping to solve the boredom problem by getting people more excited by their in-flight meals as well.
Yet at the end of the day, the biggest improvements to the quality of airline food will likely have nothing to do at the end of the day with celebrity chefs, newly discovered tastes, or even convincing people to start snorting nasal spray. It is technology that is most likely to improve the experience of in-flight dining. New planes like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner feature improved cabin pressurization systems that not only make passengers feel healthier, but improve cabin humidity up to 15%. That's a fourfold improvement in humidity that makes it all the more likely that your sinuses will stay open in-flight. Simply put? On newer planes like the 787, food will just taste better.
Not that any of this, at the end of the day, is likely to stop people bellyaching. "Look at the conditions most of us endure to travel. We spend hours driving to the airport, waiting to check-in, being questioned by security, sitting uselessly on the tarmac or hightailing it between gates," de Syon says. "Airline food might not be great, but it's getting better, and we should give airlines a break. After all, the real reason we're grumpy isn't because of what we're being served in the air. It's what is being served on the ground."