In-flight meals weren’t always the butt of jokes. One menu for a 1963 United Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Denver started off with lobster cocktail and rounds of melba toast – and this was in coach! (And if you’re currently reading this on airplane wi-fi, check out the Northwestern University Transportation Library to can examine even more sumptuous retro menus while crying into your paltry packet of peanuts.)
It’s a sad fact that nowadays, the scale of the industry has made super-fresh, super-gourmet meals impractical for most of us that aren’t flying first-class. Though the results aren’t always pretty, pre-prepared in-flight meals are the product of scientific advancement, and airlines are still turning to science to figure out how to make the best darn steak you can get from something that’s cooked, portioned out, blast-chilled and reheated in foil.
And if the packaging and freezing and reheating wasn’t enough to beat the taste out of your meal, scientists have recently come to realize that the altitude also changes how we taste food (its effects on presidential debate performance, however, are still inconclusive). Air pressure changes and dehydrated air inside cabins do funny things to our taste buds and sense of smell.
German airline Lufthansa hired researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics to figure out why tomato juice was one of their most popular drinks with passengers. In June 2011, the results came in: people’s perceptions of food while they were in the air were similar to what they’d perceive if they’d had a cold. This may explain passengers’ hankering for tomato juice; the extra acidity and saltiness that would normally seem like overkill tastes good to our partially numbed taste buds.
“Tomato juice was rated far worse under normal pressure than under low pressure. It was described as earthy and musty,” researcher Andrea Burdack-Freitag explained in a June 2011 statement. But once in the air, it got rave reviews: “pleasant fruity smells and sweet, cooling taste impressions came to the fore.”
That change in perception means that airplane food has to overcompensate to avoid tasting bland. It’s a delicate line between overcompensating for natural forces and over-salting the Salisbury steak, though.
“If I was to just go by, OK, it's 20-30 percent less flavor, I'll add 20-30 percent more, it's not going to work,” Alaska Airlines chef Clifton Lyles told NPR in June.
Still, the tricks that flying plays on our senses is in large part why in-flight meals tend to be heavily spiced and salted, and why the wine an airline chooses might pass for fruit punch on the ground.
"Ironically, some of the finest wines in the world, some of the finest Bordeauxs, actually don't taste good at altitude," Meininger’s Wine Business International editor-at-large Robert Jospeh told CNN.
United Airlines sommelier Doug Frost told CNN that an in-flight wine needs to have a more intense character and flavor, and to be fairly stable over time, since it can be several months between buying the wine and opening it on a plane.
"I also need to know that the fruit is so forward that the wine is expressive, that the wine has so much to say that at 35,000 feet I can still smell it," Frost said in an interview with CNN.
The luxury travel magazine Global Traveler held a tasting of airline wines this past May. Bottom line for oenophiles on the go: for international, go with overall winners Brussels Airlines or British Airways; for domestic U.S. flights, American Airlines.
However, perhaps you want to tailor your flight pattern to your wine of choice. South African Airways’ 2011 Driehoek Sauvignon Blanc took first place in International Business Class White Wine, while the top white wine in international first class was a French wine picked by Asiana Airlines, the Roux Clos des Poruzots Mersault 2009, which was dubbed “superopulent” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
If you’re more in the mood for a red, Global Traveler’s blind tasters gave British Airways top honors for its business class choice, Domaine Font de Michelle Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 and its first class wine, the Newton Johnson Family Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, from South Africa.
Like any restaurant, an airline’s food service comes with risks. Major cases of mass food poisoning from airline food are, thankfully, rare, but do occur. On Valentine’s Day in 1992, passengers on an Aerolineas Airlines flight from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles were served shrimp contaminated with the bacterium that causes cholera. 76 would be stricken ill, and an elderly man died.
On some carriers, the pilots and the copilot will eat different meals, just to guard against the possibility of incapacitating food poisoning. If the pilot is undone by some bad beef bourguignon, his copilot can fly on, fueled by the uncontaminated chicken breast.
In 2010, USA Today dug up reports that U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors had found numerous violations, including masses of live and dead roaches, inside a Denver outpost of LSG Sky Chefs, the largest airline caterer globally. At the Virginia outpost of another caterer, Gate Gourmet, FDA inspectors also found that seafood, meat, and other food products were not kept at the proper temperature. In response, the caterers pointed to their existing safety systems or pledged to improve.
Overall, though, FDA says fewer warning letters have been doled out to companies that prepare airline food in recent years – though that’s partially due to the fact that airlines have eliminated or cut back on meal service, FDA spokesman IRA Allen told USA Today in 2010.
"With less ready-to-eat fresh food offered in coach class and substitution with prepackaged, shelf-stable foods, the opportunity for poor preparation, storing foods at improper temperatures and food-handling violations is much lower," Allen said.
It would likely take a technological breakthrough to get back to the days of free lobster cocktails in coach. Enter 3-D printing. If the technology advances to the point where we can make human organs or furniture, why not let passengers print their food?
Marketing consultant Faith Popcorn’s imagination stretches even beyond just unlimited food-printing options to encompass functional foods.
“Imagine how great it would be to get on a plane and have an Ambien Sandwich,” Popcorn told Gourmet Magazine back in January. “Delicious and coma-inducing.”