Plane food: Why is it so hard to get right?

Vegan traveller Venetia Sherson sympathises with airlines trying to cater to increasingly fussy eaters.

Vegan food aboard a plane. Photo / M Roach
Vegan food aboard a plane. Photo / M Roach

Heard the one about the flight attendant who told passengers there were three choices of entree then added: "Please don't be upset if your first choice is not available. They all taste the same, anyway?" Boom, boom.

When it comes to travel gags, airline food is easy pickings. Jerry Seinfeld ("What's the deal with airline food?"), Ellen de Generes ("Two dead lettuce leaves garnished with a grape") and the late, great Shelley Berman ("Well, how about a Martini?") all had their sport with inflight catering.

For travellers in Economy, food horror anecdotes are right up there with turbulence. Stories of rubbery chicken, dried-out beef, and melon-with-everything-meals are standard. As a vegan, I have been dished up mush masquerading as ratatouille and gloops of pasta floating in a sea of canned tomatoes.

Photo / Angels
Photo / Angels

Great food exists, if you are prepared to pay. In First Class on Emirates, you can dine on wild caviar with sour cream and blinis followed by pink lamb roast and creamy mashed potatoes. Business Class on Cathay Pacific buys you prawn curry with mushroom palak, cumin basmati rice, and a dessert of bourbon and vanilla cheesecake.

But, in Economy, the word "gourmet" is as rare as "generous" in respect to leg room.

In the past, airlines have countered the moans with a range of excuses. One is budgets - even a small bag of peanuts can affect the bottom line. British Airways this year announced it would no longer provide two meals on flights under eight hours, saying it regularly reviewed catering, "to ensure we are investing where it matters for our customers".

Logistics is another problem. Food for herds in transit is prepared on the ground, blast-chilled, wrapped, trucked, stored and then re-heated in a tiny galley by staff who are not chefs.

There's also physiology. Pressurised cabins, low humidity and even "white noise" (the sound of the engines) affect the taste buds, reducing our sense of saltiness and sweetness by a third.

And finally, there is the one-size-fits-all response. While you might like your curry spicy, chances are your neighbour won't; anchovies do not appeal to everyone and fish will only ever work when camouflaged in sauce.

Photo / Jamie J Hagen
Photo / Jamie J Hagen

But passengers raised on a diet of cookery programmes and home-delivered gourmet food bags are not easily fobbed off. Worse they may share their bad meal stories with a million other travellers. There is now a website devoted to meal experiences (airlinemeals.net) where passengers can name, shame and acclaim the food dished up at 35,000ft. (Air NZ: 9/10 for a beef casserole with pak choy, baby corn and udon noodles followed by strawberry coconut cake; Kenya Airways: 0/10 for curried fish fillet with noodles, a capsicum salad and a muffin for dessert.)

So, airlines are rising to the challenge. Many now employ celebrity chefs to advise them or even join the flights.

"There is a lot less tolerance of what is commonly known as 'airline food'," says Emirates. Air New Zealand says it is focusing more on "freshness, innovative ingredients and products," to meet more discerning demands.

A spokesperson for Cathay Pacific says it wants to "exceed passengers' expectations" by focusing on appearance, taste, authenticity, freshness and choice".

As a vegan, travelling Economy on Cathay Pacific today I would be offered potato and chive soup, wild mushroom risotto and a leafy salad with balsamic dressing, followed by fresh woodland berries. On Air New Zealand, my choices would include a vegetarian bulgur wheat salad with pumpkin and sunflower seeds, vegetarian curry with brown rice and coconut guava cake, served with a dairy-free roll.

To cater for a growing range of "off-menu" demands, airlines have also had to increase their range of pre-ordered "special" meals. There are now choices for pescatarians, raw-food-lovers and spice-haters, as well as those with allergies and special needs. Pre-order menus read like a spy manual: VOML stands for Vegetarian Oriental Meal; LCML (Low Calorie, Low Fat) RVML (Raw Vegetable); and VGML (vegan). Cathay Pacific, which has 21 special meal options listed, says Asian vegetarian meals are the most popular request, but gluten-free - "particularly in the Australia and New Zealand region" is an emerging trend.

Photo / Jeff Gunn
Photo / Jeff Gunn

Many airlines are going further to provide bespoke choices. A dozen European airlines, including British Airways, now offer an Economy meal upgrade so those in the cheap seats can pay an extra $20-$30 for better grub, served before the regular food service starts.

Qantas has introduced "Select on Q-Eat" pre-order service, in which Economy passengers can pre-order their choice of meal - including a fourth "online" exclusive option - on international flights from Australia.

Cathay has introduced skillets and toasters in the galley to offer freshly cooked eggs and toast.

But AirBaltic (airbaltic.com), a low-cost Latvian carrier, gets the prize for ingenuity.

Its in-flight food service allows passengers to customise their meals by drag and dropping their preferred meal items into a digital tray to create one of more than 70 pre-order meals. As a vegan, I could have any combination of fried tofu, wild rice, grilled vegetables, salads or noodles.

Food requests may also soon extend to time of delivery. Research from Heathrow last year, showed more than two-thirds of passengers want flexibility about when they eat. Some people (mainly men, apparently) like to get their meal out of the way even before the plane reaches cruising attitudes. Others prefer to time meals around their sleep patterns.

Spare a thought for flight attendants in the future, who might have to deal with a request from a vegetarian with a nut intolerance, who wants her main course served with organic wine at 7pm (adjusted to the time at destination), followed two hours later by a dairy-free dessert and a soya flat white. Multiply that by 500 other variations and airlines may find take-on food is a more appealing option.

Food for thought.

Photo /  Hurricane_an
Photo / Hurricane_an

Best and worst: How they rated

According to Skytrax, Turkish Airlines last year ranked as the best airline food across all categories.

World's Best Business Class Airline Meals

1. Austrian Airlines
2. Turkish Airlines
3. Qatar Airways

World's Best Premium Economy Class Airline Meals

1. Air New Zealand
2. Qantas
3. Turkish Airlines

World's Best Economy Class Airline Meals

1. Asiana Airlines
2. Turkish Airlines
3. Thai Airways

The worst in-flight meal, according to airlinemeals.net, was North Korea's Air Koryo for a burger filled with a single piece of limp lettuce, a smear of tomato sauce and an anorexic meat patty.

- NZ Herald

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