When’s the last time you enjoyed an airline meal?
Your answer most likely depends on which end of the plane you were sitting. But why does plane food get such a bad rap?
Airlines don’t deliberately try to make meal times miserable by serving up unpalatable food. They simply have many factors, including science working against them.
Here are some of the scientific reasons why airline food doesn’t taste as good at altitude:
People have managed to adapt to live in extreme climates – from Siberia to the Sahara. But as the air becomes drier and we reach higher altitudes, our bodies stop functioning normally.
On a plane at altitude, cabin humidity is generally kept at around 10 percent. That’s about the same humidity as northern Chile’s Atacama Desert: the driest place on Earth.
Add to that the cabin air pressure at cruising altitude - which is lower than the air pressure at sea level – and the human body starts going a bit weird.
Firstly, the change in pressure numbs roughly a third of our taste buds and lowers our tolerance to ‘bitter’ tastes, such as coffee.
Your in-flight meal is essentially a TV dinner warmed up with a hand dryer.
Secondly, our noses dry out, severely impairing our sense of smell. Ask any chef what the most important component of taste is and he’ll say ‘smell’. Without it, we’re flying blind: everything tastes bland. Coupled with our unresponsive taste buds, the only food we’re capable of tasting is either heavily salted chips or a vindaloo.
But there is some good news, with the new 787 Dreamliner and 2014 launch of the Airbus A350 offering improved humidity levels in the cabin as a result of their lighter, composite fuselages.
Blame Health and Safety
You wouldn’t expect a restaurant to serve you a reheated meal, or your loved one to shove a ready meal in the microwave for a romantic night in – so why do airlines do it?
The law requires all airline food to be cooked on the ground before take-off to comply with food safety standards. That means reheats only.
But even if you could get permission to bring your 21-day aged Sirloin steak onboard, how would you cook it?
Rules are very strict: absolutely no grills, microwaves or anything else that’s likely to start a fire are allowed.
The best that staff can offer is a convection oven, which heats food by blowing hot, dry air over it. That’s right, your in-flight meal is essentially a TV dinner warmed up with a hand dryer.
Until the 70s, air travel was strictly for the middle and upper classes. Then de-regulation happened, budget airlines began competing on price instead of service and so airfares plummeted. While this was terrific news for those interested in equality, it also resulted in cost-cutting measures.
Meal service has long been a victim of widespread cost cuts in the airline industry. As a result of price-savvy consumers looking for the cheapest airfare, many airlines were quick to undertake a race to the bottom. The airlines with the smallest margins “won” that slice of the market.
Before deregulation, those who could afford to fly could expect a lobster cocktail starter, grilled tenderloin steak main, followed by a lemon chiffon pie washed down with fresh coffee (absolutely none of this is made up). Then the rest of us came in and we ended up with the swill we get today.
And there you have the truth about airline food. Even if airlines wanted to make it better, it simply wouldn’t be cost-effective to do so.
So as long as fuel prices continue to rise and dozens of airlines are competing for your business, we can expect more of the same for the foreseeable future.
George Mason works for car hire company Sixt. His main interests are cycling and backpacking, although he has yet to successfully combine both.