Can food eaten at thirty thousand feet taste, or even look, any good?

The coveted frequent flyer pass is as elusive to me as good airplane food. Though I travel a lot, it’s still not enough to grant me this golden ticket, so every occasional upgrade is  a big deal – I still remember that three-course menu of pretty-looking and delicious fare from Emirates with delight. That, and the bag of peanuts on my first ever flight. They tasted like the best thing I’d ever eaten.

Where money is no object, every major airline’s grub will be good and plentiful. Often branded by Michelin star chefs and accompanied by equally good wine, other plush bonuses even include a shisha smoke (yes, really – a recent addition to the ultra-premium Emirates First Class). But why is the phrase ‘airplane food’ so often the smokescreen for bad food? It’s not rare to hear someone liken an especially poor meal to the dinners in the sky – and you can bet they don’t mean the ones with supermodel-looking hostesses and silver cutlery.

In reality, the often-vilified airplane food category is more of a portmanteau for many things to many people: either an occasional annoyance or an occasional treat for the leisure traveller; an important lifestyle issue for frequent and ultra-frequent fliers; or as a no-brainer for the customers travelling with low-cost airlines, often divided into two camps: those who buy the food for sheer sustenance, and those who’d rather starve than pay £5 for a sandwich that would be easily confused with the cardboard box in which it’s served.

Perhaps it’s a matter of science – and the ‘altitude and pressure alters your taste’ argument is a controversial one. In 2010, a study by Lufthansa found that our perception of saltiness and sweetness decreases by around 30% at high altitudes. This might be easily overcome by salting and spicing the food more, but it still doesn’t explain why, on average, your pre-packaged airplane food sucks a lot more than 30%. Blaming the low humidity and effects of pressure is just a part of the story.

So what do globetrotters make of the food that sees them through to their next big adventure? As it turns out, cabin pressure, the company, and lifestyle choices are all good excuses for avoidance.

The science of space

“I usually start feeling mildly sick the moment I enter the plane – sneezing, dry throat, and a pulsating headache are common symptoms for me,” says Paola, a frequent flier between Singapore and Dubai. “When the food comes I can barely keep down an orange juice.”

There’s no science needed here. As anyone who ever had to swallow a sandwich on a crowded train after a long night will know, eating in a dimly-lit, confined space, most probably crammed with strangers, is not conducive to a pleasant eating experience. As Yee, a frequent ASEAN area flier describes: “The most spacious business class seat is still way too close to that annoying guy in a suit just like yours, who keeps bellowing orders at his PA, and has a tendency to chew and swallow noisily. It’s like a business lunch with an unpleasant client, but worse.”

Cramped conditions aside and beyond the glossy airline PR pictures, presentation has never been a strong point of airline fare, surprising considering the wonderful things some cultures have managed to do with the¬†humble bento box. You could blame the necessity to stock and pile hundreds of meals in limited space, the flimsy plastic cutlery or the bad lighting, and the traveller who dared taking pictures of their meal would most likely end up with something to be tagged #foodmourn rather than #foodporn. As we eat as much with our eyes, this is no minor fail. In fact the presentation of one airline meal was so confusing for one Virgin Atlantic customer, he wrote a now-viral rant to Richard Branson that went: “What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the dessert?”

 

Timing is everything

“We do our best to stick to schedule when serving meals but of course if there’s rough air or anything else, safety comes first and service has to stop, sometimes for hours – I’ve seen passengers looking at me like they could eat me, literally,” says Antonio, a Senior Inflight Officer for Alitalia.

Timing, another vice – it always seems to be slightly ‘off’. A tray is pushed on you when you’re still full from airport snacks, but there’s no food in sight when you’re starving. Service is generally based on an ill-timed circadian rhythm that doesn’t follow the time zone of your arrival, departure, or appetite. Hunger is the best sauce, and after picking on pretzels and guzzling sodas while sitting still for hours, our metabolism is not exactly revving up. No wonder the food looks so unappetising.

 

Sustenance abstinence

“Eating on a plane? I won’t be caught doing it,” says Fanny, a backpacker travelling through Asia since 2012. “I am very health-conscious and I’d rather spare my calories for when I get to my destination. I usually spend all my time on the plane reading my Lonely Planet or the notes I’ve religiously collected from blogs and websites before leaving, to make sure I don’t miss any of the “must try” food spots in the place I am visiting.”

If you’re the calorie-counting type, the safest bet would be to bring your own food – as even the so-called “lifestyle choice” meals can be laden with heavy, processed foods (vegetarian often a synonym for greasy pasta and tasteless salads).

How well you decide to eat in the skies is just a matter of choice, depending on the resources you are able or willing to put into it. Appearance, timing, surrounding, expectations, moods and memories play a big part in the experience – and that’s the beauty of food. No matter how ugly looking, there’s always so much more to what you see, whether it’s on a plate or a plastic food tray.

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