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What’s the deal with airplane food?

The science and secrets behind how in-flight meals are selected and prepared.

A tray with a container of rice, pudding, and coffee.
Airplane meals used to be complimentary and served elaborately. That changed in the early 2000s.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

As Jerry Seinfeld famously asked, “What’s the deal with airplane food?” The Biscoff cookies you’re given as a participation prize for reaching cruising altitude and the warmed-up plastic container of pasta from your trans-Atlantic flight are shrouded in mystery.

Most passengers don’t question where their complimentary food came from or how it got to them, despite how little information is given about the meal selection and preparation process. Would anyone stuck 35,000 feet up in the air turn down free food? Not me.

The airline catering services industry is worth $6 billion in the United States, but there’s not much behind-the-scenes knowledge bestowed on the average traveler as to how the sausage gets made. In fact, I struggled to find sources willing to explain the ins and outs of airplane food. Two of the major catering companies, Gate Gourmet and Flying Food Group, declined to be interviewed for this story.

While most major carriers have culinary design teams to brainstorm menus, they rely on catering companies to help them produce thousands of in-flight meals a day. Airplane food hasn’t always been served in a plastic-wrapped box that looks like it came straight from a Trader Joe’s aisle. As with everything related to modern air travel, meals and the logistics to prepare them are continually being fine-tuned to be more efficient and, ideally, to improve the customer experience.

A brief history of the airline meal

To recognize how meager today’s domestic food offerings are, we have to look to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when airlines served complimentary meals on domestic flights. Yes, even flights as short as Boston to Chicago. (This, of course, was incomparable to the 1950s and 1960s, which was dubbed the “golden age of air travel,” when multi-course meals and alcohol were served on board to economy fliers.)

Passengers from the 1950s enjoy a meal inside an airplane.
Airlines competed with one another to serve passengers elaborate, sometimes multi-course, meals.
Bettmann Archive

In the aftermath of 9/11, the industry took a devastating financial hit, and most airlines had to slash costs wherever necessary. One of the first things they cut back on was in-flight meal service. American Airlines completely stopped serving meals for economy passengers on domestic flights, with the exception of nonstop transcontinental routes. Delta and United wouldn’t serve economy meals on flights under four hours. (There were no changes to international flights.)

An airline consultant presciently told the New York Times in 2001 that this appeared to be a permanent change. According to the travel blog the Points Guy, an economy-class meal costs an airline about $4, and a business-class meal ranges from $25 to $30. First-class meals can cost upward of $100.

When airlines promote their in-flight “dining experience,” they’re likely touting what they serve to people in first class or on international flights. For the few “premium” members who travel frequently or those who can afford first class, food is an integral part of the flying experience. For those of us stuck in economy, however, domestic meals probably aren’t coming back en masse, although Delta has introduced meals for its nonstop transcontinental routes.

Within the past decade, airlines have started to unbundle their services, meaning that passengers can choose to pay for certain, once-included amenities, like a snack pack or a checked bag. If you want anything more than what’s given to you, it’ll likely have an additional price tag.

Who selects these menu items?

The three major American airlines — American, Delta, and United — all have culinary teams dedicated to determining their flight menus, which vary depending on the region, seat class, and season. The culinary teams at United and American request input from flight attendants and, in some cases, customers to see which types of foods are popular. (Delta did not respond to an interview request via email.)

“We have four different menu cycles that we rotate throughout the year,” Gerry Gulli, corporate executive chef at United, told me. “We have five catering zones in the US domestic market, and they’re all on different menu cycles, so if you’re flying out of, say, Chicago into Denver, you’re not going to get the same menu on your return trip.”

Containers of salad at the Domodedovo Catering inflight catering facility.
Most airlines partner with catering groups to prepare food items hours before a flight.
Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS/Getty Images

There’s a lot of forecasting that goes into updating a menu, Gulli added. The goal is to anticipate the next big food trend and apply it to menus. In 2019, for example, plant-based foods became very popular, and Gulli said there’s a growing interest in Mediterranean food.

At American, there are several menu design workshops a year, but the airline has moved away from changing the entire menu every year or two, said Raphael Girardoni, managing director of food and beverages.

“We’re constantly changing out individual items, so if there’s a particular entree that isn’t doing well from a customer service standpoint, that entree might not fly again next month and we’ll replace it with something else,” he told me.

American works closely with its catering partners in 130 kitchens nationwide to figure out what entrees are feasible to produce, Girardoni added. “We tend to design or create way more entrees than we’re going to need in case anything falls through.”

Most domestic airlines, with the exception of budget carriers like Frontier and Spirit Airlines, offer complimentary snacks — nuts, pretzels, cookies, or crackers — which have become a staple of air travel since the 1980s. Southwest, which marketed itself as the “peanut airline,” became one of the first carriers in the 1970s to offer salted peanuts as a snack instead of full-service meals. Other carriers soon caught on and started offering complimentary peanuts; over time, different options like pretzels and wafers became popular.

Yet as allergy concerns became mainstream, Southwest stopped serving peanuts in 2018 after United and American changed their policies and now offers allergy-friendly snacks. After the 2008 recession, airlines again had to cut costs and stopped offering free snacks in economy, and the big three didn’t bring them back until 2016.

How are plane meals prepared?

Meals are usually prepared on the ground in catering facilities close to the airport, and are then transported to the aircraft and placed in refrigerators for flight attendants to heat and serve on board. The caterers are more like the middlemen that help airlines mass-produce thousands of meals a day; the airline’s catering team is usually responsible for menu design.

Given the number of airlines (both domestic and international) that serve food on board, there’s some overlap between who the three major catering groups work with. However, airlines rarely reveal who their catering partners are: JetBlue has worked with Flying Food Group, and Delta recently renewed its contract with Gate Group. When the Points Guy toured Gate Group’s facility by JFK airport, the blog wrote that “for competitive reasons,” it could not disclose the exact airlines the group serves.

“Most of United’s meals are prepared fresh globally,” Gulli said, which means food is made the day of the flight. “If it’s a popular item in economy — say we’re producing 5,000 a day — a chef might suggest we make the sauce fresh but prepare something ahead of time.” When an airline says its food is made “in house,” he clarified, that just means it’s prepared within an airline’s kitchen.

The meals (and the aircraft ovens used to heat them) are designed so that the food isn’t severely affected by the change in altitude and pressure. Airline chefs or catering groups usually provide instructions for the cabin crew on how to heat and even plate the food.

Most airline meals contain a lot of sodium, since people’s taste perception changes in the air, according to Charles Platkin, director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center. He’s spent two decades analyzing airline food menus and annually releases a health report on the top 11 US airlines.

“That’s one of the challenges since we have to factor in the changes in altitude. People lose about 30 percent or even more of their taste for salt,” said Girardoni of American Airlines. “We don’t try to add salt since it dehydrates people, but instead add more flavor profiles into our meals.”

Airlines don’t want to have the impression of serving bland food, so it’s likely they’ll add flavor enhancers, like salt or sugar, to make meals taste better, Platkin added. According to Platkin’s 2019 survey, Air Canada and Alaska Air have the healthiest menus, followed by Delta and JetBlue.

In recent years, American Airlines passengers have been gravitating toward healthier and lighter meals, Girardoni said. People started to preorder healthier food, and that has led American to rethink even the food options available for economy flyers to buy.

Is the food (and water) generally safe to consume?

Short answer: yes.

There have been, however, documented cases of food poisoning, and the Food and Drug Administration has issued nearly 1,500 food safety citations to the three major airline caterers (Gate Group, Flying Food Group, LSG Sky Chefs) and 16 airlines since October 2008, according to an NBC News investigation. NBC found that 500 of these cases were related to contamination or sanitation violations, but none were severe enough for the FDA to shut down a catering facility.

Under FDA guidelines, catering groups are required to be inspected every three to five years. The investigation found that although an inspection can unearth safety violations, airlines and caterers are rarely penalized.

The quality of drinking water on airlines also varies, according to another 2019 study Platkin supervised. Platkin revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency rarely penalizes airlines that violate the law for providing passengers unsafe drinking water.

Some airlines give guests bottled water, but if you’re drinking a hot beverage like coffee or tea, chances are the water could come from the water tank. Airlines are required to disinfect their water tanks only four times a year, and on international flights, tanks are sometimes refilled in other countries (which do not fall under EPA jurisdiction).

While these discoveries might sound alarming, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all airline food and water is entirely unsafe.

When it comes to eating on a plane, ignorance doesn’t always lead to bliss (especially if you’re trapped on a metal contraption with, like, one bathroom). But 2020 is expected to be a good year for airlines globally, so it’s not too radical to hope that plane meals will get better — eventually.

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