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I traveled on a couple of airlines for transcontinental flights, and they always give food to economy class passengers. However, the quality of the meal often looks poor; it gives the feeling that a 5–10 dollars meal in a fast-food/snack stand would be of better quality and more generous.

What are the reasons for airlines to determine what food to offer?

I am particularly surprised by the relative cost of food (I expect the meal they give to cost around 5 dollars) compared with a 1000-dollar economy class ticket.

Given that the airplane food is usually packaged by specific caterers, there is probably a reason, but I cannot think of any. The weight/volume would not change with better food; maybe the air in a plane has bad conditions for food?

Rather than discussing the subjective quality of airplane food, I am more interested in the reasons for an airline to choose what food they will give to economy passengers.

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Apparently Alaska Airlines (I used to fly with them often back in the 90s) had excellent food because they had a policy of catering the corporate board meetings with the same food as they served in aircraft cabins. If it wasn't good enough for the board, it wasn't good enough for the passengers. I don't know whether that is still the case or not. –  Greg Hewgill May 19 at 20:55
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Is this question assuming that on business class the food quality is higher? Is it? It would be very relevant to know that. –  Lohoris May 19 at 22:33
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Have you been on Turkish Airlines? Oh man, the food is always so fantastic. Just Google-Image "Turkish Airlines food". I've flown with them so many times, the photos match the reality 99%. –  Adnan May 20 at 12:03
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People say it's because it's hard to make good food under the restrictions of where it's served and how it can be prepared, but no. It's really just because you don't have a choice, and crap food is cheaper to produce and serve. You can get perfectly decent food on a plane if you fly with the right airline (I just came back from a trip with SWISS, and their food was surprisingly quite decent. Not like 5 star restaurant quality, but at least like cheap restaurant quality, not half-rotten slop like United's.) –  neminem May 20 at 17:46
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It isn't always bad. I've had food on: Korean Air; Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airlines, Evergreen Air... all of which was good (and I am a picky eater). Back when US airlines offered food it was typically bad but good international carriers have good food. –  Dan S May 20 at 23:29

8 Answers 8

Consider this:

  • why is the food so bad at large banquets and weddings? (Ever hear the phrase "rubber chicken" to describe an industry awards banquet?)
  • why is the food so bad in prison?
  • why is the food so bad in a school cafeteria?
  • why is the food so bad at a university residence?

In all of these cases, just as on the airplane:

  • a very large quantity of food has to be served essentially simultaneously. This means it must be prepared and then kept hot for 30 minutes or more. Not much food reacts well to that treatment.
  • the same thing (or one of a small number of choices) is to be served to hundreds of people. The choices tend to go more for "inoffensive" and "acceptable" than for "amazing" since tastes vary so wildly. Foods where one person's fantastic is another person's disgusting (eg egg yolks runny vs egg yolks hard) are simply not served.
  • saving 5 or 10 cents per portion can add up to a tremendous saving, providing more pressure on the ingredients buyer than in restaurants or cooking at home
  • the eaters did not choose the scenario with the food in mind. Nobody chooses their school, which airline to take, or whether to steal something with the meals in mind
  • the consequences of providing even actively unpleasant food are very small. Most people who dislike airline food just eat before they fly or bring their own food.

I am not sure I believe all the stuff about air pressure etc changing the taste. I have had some amazingly delicious food when sitting upfront. I think it's just the issues of scale, and of the relative unimportance of food quality, that leave us poking at glop wondering if we really are hungry enough to eat it. I have also had delicious food in economy, mostly within Europe.

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+1 for "not sure I believe all the stuff about air pressure" :-) –  Martin Ba May 20 at 7:26
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There's also the limited facilities: with very few exceptions (e.g. Nicholas Sarkozy's "unprecedented" electric ovens on his notoriously ill-timed private jet refit), the food has to be prepared on the ground then re-heated as one unit. That limits the options: it takes serious culinary talent to come up with inoffensive yet delicious meals that are still delicious after sitting in a tray for hours and being re-heated. –  user568458 May 20 at 8:41
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I haven't been in prison, my wedding dinner was magnificent, at school I brought my own lunch box and I went to a University with a very decent restaurant. Sorry but this answer is really speculation and highly a matter of opinion. It is okay to not believe the "air pressure", but it with be fine if you could substantiate that with references –  andra May 20 at 10:12
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Weird coincidence: I spot this question in the side bar as StackOverflow, read it out of interest and later the same day read comments posted on the latest SO Podcast, one of which seems to bear no relation to the podcast but is of huge relevance here: See the comment by Bix, May20th, and just in case that's removed, this is the linked article from their comment re pressure altering the perception of taste courtesy of BA and Heston Blumenthal –  Steve Pettifer May 20 at 14:46
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On a lighter note, this is one of the best complaint letters about airline food that I've ever come across. telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/4344890/… –  Ankur Banerjee May 20 at 22:28

It seems that is not that airlines serving you bad food, it is more your perception on the food that plays tricks with your mind.

Only today the Atlantic published a nice article on this topic with the appropriate title "Why Airplane Food Is So Bad". It boils down to pressurised cabins and economics of the masses.

Some quotes from this article:

Today’s planes, which reach altitudes of 35,000 feet or more, are pressurized so you only feel like you’re about 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. This helps keep you, you know, breathing at those high altitudes, but it also numbs your taste buds, making food taste blander. Older aircraft didn’t fly as high, meaning the prime cuts of steak being served on those early flights tasted more like they would have on the ground.

and it continues

Other aspects of the airplane environment make it less than gastronomically ideal—cabin humidity is typically lower than 20 percent (as opposed to the 30 percent or more that is normal in homes), which can dry out your nose, weakening your sense of smell. And smell is inextricably linked to taste. (The dryness of the cabin makes you thirsty, too.) Also, the air in the cabin is recycled about every two to three minutes. That, plus air conditioning, can dry up and cool down food very quickly, according to de Syon.

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That is a matter of opinion. I have been served quite some aesthetically pleasing dishes even in economy class. –  andra May 19 at 20:30
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This one's always been my impression. You have a limited taste range, stuff doesn't taste like it does on the ground, you're catering for thousands of people and it all needs to be in prepackaged containers. The best you can hope for under all those limitations is really "oh, that was ok". –  dlanod May 19 at 21:06
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"Older aircraft didn’t fly as high". Utter nonsense (unless they're talking about really old unpressurized prop planes). Jets have always been pressurized to around 8 to 9 thousand feet (newer generations like the 787 are pressurized to 6 or 7 thousand feet). Cabin dryness does hurt taste and smell; the 787 can maintain more normal humidity levels. If you ever travel First Class, you'll find the food tastes great -- they serve crap to the peons to save money. –  Phil Perry May 19 at 22:51
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@PhilPerry: "unless they're talking about really old unpressurized prop planes" - That is exactly what the article is talking about. –  user2357112 May 19 at 23:06
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@dlanod "oh, that was ok" would be great. The issue is that a lot of carriers are miles away from that point. I've flown with carriers that gave you food that was edible and tasted decent, and I was happy. I've also flown with carriers that gave you glop that was impossible to tell what food group it was made from, and a roll that would have been better used as a weapon than as food. That's not altitude - that's plain old "they don't give a crap." –  neminem May 20 at 17:50

It seems there actually IS a link between air pressure and taste. Just because someone may personally have had a good meal at altitude does not invalidate this, it just means the chef involved understood the problem at hand. Very recently, Heston Blumenthal (the famous British molecular gastronomist - or 'poncy chef' if you will) set out to look at the challenges of airline food with British Airways and the BA development chef called foul on the air pressure claim, so they put it to the test using a pressure chamber. Sure enough, it is true and the BA chef was convinced. The solution is to use ingredients from the umami taste group (seaweed, soy sauce, Worcester sauce and Marmite are all considered to be umami ingredients).

Source: http://www.britishairways.com/travel/mission-impossible/public/en_gb#

Note that the video on that page may be regionally unavailable as it is a UK television program. Also, props to StackOverflow user Bix who randomly commented on a SO podcast which is where I found this information, co-incidentally on the same day this question was asked and I spotted it pop up in the sidebar on SO.

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I suppose Bix probably mentioned it as tangentially related to the tomato juice question title. –  Martin Smith May 20 at 23:02
    
Ah yes - I hadn't spotted that bit! I had thought it was exclusively a SO podcast not a more general SE podcast which is why I thought it a touch on the random side. –  Steve Pettifer May 21 at 7:09
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Note that this is testable: Obtain two servings of something that can be served at room temperature -- you'd probably have to do so at a restaurant inside the security perimiter, given the current paranoia about liquids, gels, and passengers generally. Sample one on the ground. Carry the other with you as your in-flight meal, and see if it tastes the same to you (modulo staleness, and trying to avoid bias). Personally, knowing how much of taste is actually smell, I'm willing to believe air pressure affects it. –  keshlam May 21 at 19:25
    
I personally detest flying and avoid it as much as possible (too many bad flight and engine failures) but I do have to fly later in the year. Might test this out in order to take my mind off the flying! –  Steve Pettifer May 22 at 7:15

I think the main reason for food quality being what it is is that the airline is trying to make food sales as profitable as possible. You don't have any other options up there, so they only need to provide safe, edible food, and they have the leverage to force you to pay higher prices.

That aside, I think your comment about air is on the right track. With thinner and drier air in flight, your taste buds aren't as sensitive, and so that start airplane food at a disadvantage compared to the same food on the ground. In addition to that, in the case of hot food, the food is all cooked ahead of time, and simply reheated in an oven on-board plane. They likely overcook the food in the re-heating process, in part to be sure it is as safe as possible. It's a worthwhile trade-off to the airline to compromise on food quality to ensure that there isn't mass food poisoning on a plane.

With these conditions for making food, it's no surprising that the food isn't as good as freshly prepared food on the ground with more ingredient options. Outside the US, there are airlines who do have high quality food on board, but even having experienced some of those, I think if you were to have the same food on the ground in a restaurant, it would generally still be better.

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In economics, it's called "comparative advantage" (disadvantage, actually).

What the airplane is good at is getting you from one place to another, at high speed, through a path high in the air. In order to be good at that, they have to be less good at other things.

Preparing "good" food is hard enough on the ground, when done in a gourmet restaurant by people specializing in this task, taking all the time they reasonably need.

It's practically impossible when the food has to be transported, prepared, and served 35,000 feet in the air, "on the fly" (literally), on a vehicle flying 500-600 mph, by people whose main job is to see that the passengers and contents of the plane travel safely and smoothly to their destination.

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What you seem to forget from the article on "atlantic" (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/05/the-evolution-of-airplane-food/371076/), white noise seems to affest taste too:

There’s some evidence that planes’ white noise, as well as their low pressure, could contribute to reduced taste. Research has shown that white noise in a non-airplane context suppresses some basic tastes, and considering that, as well as research that shows umami is the most intense of the five tastes, a recent op-ed published in Flavour suggests researching whether umami is a taste that withstands the white noise effect.

I believe that is the reason, food at 6000ft on a mountain tastes different than food on 6000ft air pressure in an airplane. At least the most mountains I've been to didn't have that much white noise.

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The premise of this question is false.

Airplane food is good on good airlines (many Asian airlines; Qantas) and bad on bad airlines (all US airlines, some European airlines).

Whenever I fly Singapore Air (SQ), I look forward eagerly to the food. Even on economy class, they give you a fancy menu from which you can choose your meal option. And then for desserts they often give such things as Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

Airlines are forced to be good if they face heavy competition and are not protected by their domestic government. (Example: Singapore has no domestic routes to speak of and the Singapore government has deliberately chosen not to help SQ much, so SQ is forced to do well internationally.)

Airlines are allowed to be bad if they face little competition and are protected by the government. For example, US airlines are bad (and thus have inter alia bad food), not least because of heavy protection from the US government:

  • Foreign airlines cannot ply domestic US routes and US airlines must be at least 75% US-owned.
  • Whenever you are some foreign airline hoping to gain landing rights, you need approval from the US government.
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As it has been mentioned several times in comments, the "better" classes (Business, First) have decent food, very often designed by well respected chefs.

It gets bad and worse in "cattle", whereas intercontinental is a little bit better than domestic/regional. The problem is that, particularly with deep discounted fares, there is essentially no space for something "fancy", but the few full fare economy passengers subsidize the deep discounted ones.

It is interesting that most (north-american, European) airlines serve very similar stuff (usually some kind of meat as one dish, and some kind of pasta as the other one), which may not really be best suited for the kind of preparation which is necessary on planes. There are many dishes which are actually better when reheated, and they are in fact not more expensive than what is currently served.

Another aspect is the presentation which got worse over the years… cost cutting at its most visible…

It is similar with the wine available with the meal (intercontinental). Swissair used to have basic Swiss wines; SWISS nowadays has a "vin de pays d'Oc" (which sells for less than €1.50 per bottle in French supermarkets). (the wine is not bad, and suited for the dryness and lower air pressure, and it is real wine…)

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