The Ups and Downs of Air Travel Food

I’m writing this post sitting in an Airbus 340/600, Iberia flight From Madrid to San José, Costa Rica.

I have just read the 100th edition of the magazine Elle à Table and I am starved. I really wish they would start with the in-flight service…

Not that I am intensely looking forward to the fare. Despite the choice of chicken or beef, chicken or pasta, the dishes they serve you in an airplane always look like roadkill. In Economy Class, should I add. Having travelled more than average thanks to my father’s career in the airline business, I very occasionally got to taste Business Class and even First Class food. Darn it, it does make a difference. The white linens, the proper cutlery, glasses made of, well, glass, and the lobster and champagne. Yup. First Class is The Only Way To Fly. I wish.

Most of us can’t afford to fly in grand style and are limited to what Americans call Coach, because it really does feel more like taking the bus than anything else.

Of course, serving food in a flying tin can imposes certain technical restrictions. Considering fire is a no-no, cooking in-flight is limited. Air hostesses and stewards are there firstly for safety and security reasons, and only secondly to serve food and drink and fluff the passengers’ pillows. Also, a crew does not include a chef. 

Serving the food must therefore be compatible with airplane safety. In the event of serious turbulence or an emergency, the trays are unceremoniously dumped in bin bags and locked out of the way.

Many, many years ago – just out of college, in fact – I got a job as an air hostess based in Geneva. So I know what I am talking about. The company was a little bit special, since we only flew across Europe (so no long-hauls), all the seats were wide and navy blue leather, and we served either champagne or excellent quality Crèmant d’Alsace to all our passengers. The company was also a bit fussy about what we served and how we served it, and we were trained in food science and expected to know not only the origin of things, but how they we’re produced.

On short flights, for breakfast, we served hot drinks and flaky, buttery croissants. Between Geneva and Nice, we served platters of different sandwiches with salmon, pâté, pastrami, roast peppers and feta, even foie gras! People were generally pleasantly surprised by this, as it was a welcome change from the ubiquitious plastic tray.

Of course, the food also varies depending on where you load. The return flights from Athens, for example, were our favorites, since we loaded great little Greek salads and dishes with tasty vegetables – vegetables were and are a bit of a problem in airline food. Meals on planes are generally meat-and-starch combos with sauce.

So today. Chicken with mushroom cream sauce and potatoes. Pasta with tomato sauce and slices of chorizo (unsurprising, since they loaded in Spain). It was fine, but stodgy. The snack? A roadkill sandwich with not even a whiff of a slice of tomato or a gherkin, followed by a tasteless, watery yogurt and pineapple juice so sweet it would make your dentist cry.


I do realize that (despite its definite shortcomings) I am nostalgic for a by-gone era; a time when air travel still had some glamour to it, and you didn’t end up in your socks, your pants falling down for lack of belt, and with the almost inevitable body search, complete with a feel under the soutien-gorge and the elastic of your underpants. (Haha! I say that as if my pants ever risk falling down, belt or not!). After all, one can’t possibly discuss airline food without mentioning the low-cost revolution. Ticket prices have gone down, certainly (although it the price is always higher than advertised), but nothing is included in the price anymore. Add in Nine Eleven and the subsequent ban on liquids in carry-on bags, and the passengers were turned into cash cows, both in the plane and at the airport.

The initial transformation came in the form of unhealthy and fast food for ease of transport, and with long use-by dates. Snacks sold in planes consisted mainly of crisps, chocolate bars, toasted sandwiches and sodas. Fast food chains invaded airports, like Burger King in Dublin or McDonald’s most everywhere. For anyone interested in healthy options, a picnic was the only way as long as the security restrictions were respected, but even then a small bottle of still water cost several euro. And your plastic fork was likely to be confiscated at the security check in case you were McGuyver. Or Mossad. And how do you eat grated carrots with a bendy plastic teaspoon?

The second transformation came in response to some of these initial failings: gourmet, clean food, organic, healthful,… The choice in airport terminals has increased dramatically. Exki, and other boutiques sell delicious salads with bulgur, chickpea purée, baby spinach, feta, edamame beans and such. I say “boutiques”, because when you pay a single yogurt €3.60 – even if it’s organic and with rhubarb – we’re talking serious luxury food. How can a sesame noodle dish barely the size of a starter cost over €10? How is it justifiable that a mug of green tea – that is just a cup of hot water and a teabag – costs almost €5? 

Well, part of this is simply the exorbitant fee airports change the companies to set up shop. The rest is extortion. Crisps aren’t really cheaper than bulgur and parsley, are they?

Some airports fare better than others. My least favorite of all is Roissy Charles de Gaulle in Paris. Besides the fact that it is filthy, impractical and unpleasant, the restaurants there are terrible and the layer of bread crumbs, cold chips and ketchup trodden into the carpet beneath the tables is positively insalubrious. I actually had to laugh, because while researching something on the Net today, I came across a blog post by Paris-based American cook/baker/author/foodaholic David Leibovitz from 2011, entitled “Why is the food so abysmal at Charles de Gaulle airport? Why, indeed…?

One of my favourites is Amsterdam Schiphol. There are rest areas with stylish and comfortable couches, armchairs and pod-like structures that allow the weary traveller some respite from Economy Class seats and noise. Also, the airport is dotted with juice bars.

Here’s a photo of a corner of Madrid airport where I had a bite to eat this morning. Of course, everything is fake! The wine bottles, the hams… (Do you realize that this means there is a factory somewhere that specializes in plastic hams!) Nevertheless, armchairs were set around bistros tables, the decor created an atmosphere of rustic charm and pleasantness, and a cup of coffe, a glass of freshly pressed orange juice and a sandwich made of fresh baguette with Pata Negra ham, no less, cost me €8.40. And Madrid Barajas is not known to be the best transit experience in the world.

I’m not sure wether or not I’ve come to any conclusion on this subject. The food in the planes of “traditional” airlines does not appear to have changed very much these past 20 years. Occasionally, chefs are hired to create signature dishes, like Clodagh McKenna for Aer Lingus, precisely to combat the bad image of plane food. Low-cost airlines bank on people travelling for pleasure and serve up high-calorie snack food and guilty pleasures like a cooked (reheated) breakfast, crisps/pretzels/olives and a beer, or hot chocolate and sticky buns. Devil-may-care, we’ll worry about cholesterol when we get back.

Where there is definite improvement, is at the airport. Sushi, vegetarian, Italian, etc., and on top of the vending machines and Starbuck’s cafés, Ladurée, Petrossian caviar and oyster bars add a little glamour to transit areas. However, this all comes at a price not everyone is willing or able to pay.

I have not – obviously – tried every airport, nor every airline. I’d be interested in hearing about your best and worst experiences. For now, I’ll leave you to taste my other snack – this time, a warm with beef and melted cheese on sweet, mushy bread.

Roadkill, anyone?

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