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Extremely Fast Food – airline meals discussed and disgust

My girlfriend has been nagging me for ages to write something about airline food.

My girlfriend has been nagging me for ages to write something about airline food. She is obsessed with eating and thinks about little else during her waking hours. Meals, in her world, are planned days, sometimes months, in advance and she can talk about food ad infinitum whilst eating ad nauseum.

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Airline Meals: Nick’s favourite food

I get a glimpse into the life of the glutton when I fly: endlessly re-reading my menu whilst anxiously scanning the aisles for cabin crew with their Tardis trolleys that manage to hold eight thousand boiling hot meals in something the size of a bin. It’s something I always get genuinely excited about, and I’m probably not alone since many airlines have taken more care in the last decade or so to please their customers and get away from the much maligned reputation of the “airline meal”.

Why is airline food so important?
As human beings, we tend to eat more when we are unsure as to when our next meal will be, and if you’re flying to a distant and unfamiliar destination, then the chances are you might be feeling a little anxious. It’s also important to break up a long, boring flight, and this serves both the passenger and the airline.

People have to be seated when they eat which means they’re not leaping around in the way of the cabin crew, the food often soaks up some of the free booze, and the idea is that a fair few will nod off after the meal is served. Valium also works nicely.

The good old days
Commercial air travel began in the 1920s and by the 1930s, the world saw the first transatlantic flights with single tickets for the 29 hour journey being the equivalent of around US$5800 in today’s money. For that amount, the airline meals were pretty good and cooked from scratch by onboard chefs. Sadly this was not sustainable and as the airline industry grew, so did the use of polystyrene and cardboard.

Chefs are back in
The last few years have seen a resurgence of real chef involvement though and a number of airlines have retained the services of celebrity cooks such as Gordon Ramsay and Juan Amador. Apparently there are various challenges which face a chef organising an in-flight meal which had not occurred to me.

For one thing, your nasal passages dry up a bit in flight which means your palate loses sensitivity at altitude – in some cases by up to 40%. Consequently strong flavours which some might find unpalatable on the ground are very popular when we fly.

Then there’s the problem with sauces: cream and butter sauces tend to spit when re-heated (which airline food is) so those are out; deep fat fryers on aeroplanes are a no-no so chips will not be served; steak is pre-seared so it’s impossible to get one of those to order, and don’t even mention the potential hazards of hot soup and turbulence.

The health factor
Whilst it is impossible to say whether all in-flight food is healthy due to the diverse nature of menu and carrier, airlines are certainly taking this into account with most offering a choice of menu to suit travellers’ dietary requirements.

It might be worth exploring some of the non-standard options (I haven’t yet) since I’ve found a number of references to people claiming that the food is much better than the normal fare. For example, the British Airways halal meals out of Heathrow are, in the words of one reviewer, “restaurant-quality, specially prepared, and really delicious.” Maybe order the kosher menu on the way back to compare – and confuse them.

One thing is for certain, if you want to watch your weight, then avoid snack offerings which various airlines sell. DietDetective.com show some interesting statistics regarding the calorific value of these food products and I have just calculated that if I ate just four snacks on an American Airlines flight (nuts, crisps etc) I would have consumed 2200 calories requiring nearly ten hours of walking to burn them off. It must be why Americans are so . . . often spotted wearing trainers.

The best airline food
Skytrax, who we have mentioned a couple of times before, produce the World Airline Awards which cover a number of areas – one of which is airline food. This independent survey produced results from nearly 16 million respondents in 2008, and the results can be seen below:

Best First Class Catering

Rank Airline 2007
1 Cathay Pacific 2
2 Singapore Airlines 3
3 Qantas 4
4 Qatar Airways 6
5 Gulf Air 1

Best Business Class Catering

Rank Airline 2007
1 Austrian 1
2 Qatar Airways 8
3 bmi British Midland 4
4 Singapore Airlines 3
5 Emirates 10

Best Economy Class Catering

Rank Airline 2007
1 Qantas 5
2 Ethiad Airways 1
3 Austrian 7
4 Emirates 2
5 Asiana Airways 12

I can’t think of the last time I was disappointed with airline food – not the budget airline sandwiches – but the stuff that comes on trays. For all its bad press, I reckon it’s pretty impressive the way that several hundred meals can be served simultaneously and that they taste quite nice.

I ate in an allegedly high quality restaurant last week and my main course, prepared and cooked firmly at sea-level, was extremely nasty – I’d have taken an airline dinner any day of the week.

Clearly people care about airline food – a bit too much
Finally, if you really take your food seriously, AirlineMeals.net is a site which caters for people who take pictures of their food onboard the airline and then post them in for enlightenment of fellow travellers.

They also add fairly extensive commentaries too which suggest that greater attention should be paid to spelling and grammar rather than what they are about to eat. Some people don’t know the name of what they’re eating so just make it up – “cannenoli (sic) anyone?” whilst others are clearly just very hard to please, saying “the chicken was too chicken-y tasting” – shame on Air Canada.

One chap was clearly just very bored, and looking for a confrontation he could win, announced in his spiel that he “had a little fight with the orange.” I could go on, but it seems wrong to mock the afflicted. We all know there are some distinctly weird websites out there but as far as benignly odd goes, this one, if you’ll allow the food-based metaphor, takes the biscuit.

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