Most airlines have put a lot of thought and effort into improving their in-flight meals in the last few years. Sometimes though, you still get an awful, bland-tasting, unappetising mess.
So how is it made? Why does it taste like it does? And can you eat Business Class meals on cheap flights in Economy?
Skyscanner Australia helped us explore the most commonly asked in-flight meal questions.
Who makes your airline meals?
Major international companies, like Gate Gourmet, LSG Sky Chefs, and dnata (Dubai National Air Transpart Association) dominate the airline food industry and operate out of vast hanger-like factories. Gate Gourmet has its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, but is owned by Chinese conglomerate HNA Group. LSG Sky Chefs has headquarters in Frankfurt and Texas. Meanwhile, dnata has its headquarters in Dubai.
To give you some sense of scale of things, Gate Gourmet operates in around 170 airports in 60 countries, including in Sydney and Brisbane. It produces hundreds of thousands of meals a day.
In Australia, the largest commercial kitchen complex in the Southern hemisphere is at Melbourne Airport. It’s run by Alpha Flight Services, a subsidiary of dnata.
Alpha Flight Services operates commercial kitchens across Australia. The one in the Melbourne Airport kitchen alone produces around 20,000 meals a day.
Major catering companies have contracts to supply meals to different airlines. For example, Virgin Australia will be serviced by Gate Gourmet for six years from February 2018.
Most things are made from scratch and meals are on an aircraft on the same day they are made. If an airline makes a stop over, for example during a flight from Sydney to London, new food is usually loaded on board from kitchens based at a stopover destination, like Singapore.
Speaking of air planes, consider this your refresher course on in-flight etiquette. Step one: never, ever recline your seat back on a plane. Post continues after audio.
Do airlines make meals for their own flights?
Yes, some of them do. In fact, the enormous Emirates Flight Catering Facility in Dubai prepares around 180,000 meals a day for its own flights, as well as for other airlines.
Snap Fresh and Q Catering, both owned by Qantas, make meals for Qantas flights and advertise their services to other airlines.
What are the main differences between meals served in different classes?
As you might expect, economy class meals sometimes include cheaper ingredients. Forget lobster. Main meals are pre-cooked, pre-packaged and often frozen or blast-chilled as a whole item in the food factory. Flight attendants simply warm main meals up in the onboard ovens.
Main meals in Business Class and First Class are generally not pre-packaged. Instead, each part of the meal, for example, the sauce, vegetables, and fish, are packaged separately, so that they can be reheated – or cooked on board. This means that flight attendants can reheat or cook each thing perfectly, and serve the meal as it might be served in a restaurant. Ingredients are often prepared much closer to take off time too.
Why don’t I always get the meal I want?
Each economy class passenger is allocated one meal. There might be two or three choices on the menu, but because some might be more popular on certain flights than on others, you may not get the chicken curry you fancied. There is less chance of this happening in Business Class and First Class, because more meals than passengers are loaded.
Are some things best left on the ground?
Yes, some cuts of beef don’t reheat well. Risotto rice clumps together and looks very unappealing, but you still find it on some airlines. Smelly cheese might not go down too well. Omelettes generally look like, and taste like, an alien species. And, forget the toaster. You’ll never see toast being made on a plane – because toasting bread might set off fire warnings.
Who decides what meals are served?
While big catering companies might make the meals, the airlines invent them. They use catering panels made up of chefs, culinary experts and others, to come up with ideas and test them. They also argue about whether the flight attendants will be able to serve them up properly.
Celebrity chefs are often associated with airlines, which are keen to milk as much money as they can from their Business Class and First Class cabins. These can provide as much as 20 per cent of an airline’s income.
Australian celebrity chef Matt Moran is on the culinary panel for Singapore Airlines, for example. He presents his ideas to the airline and works to create them. Meanwhile, fellow Australian Neil Perry is influential in planning meals for Qantas.
How often do airlines change their menus every year?
That depends on the airline. Some change their Economy Class menus once a year, or every six months. Most Business Class menus change every three months. Most First Class menus change once a month.
Does airline food taste the same in the sky?
No. Low cabin pressure and low humidity means that you can’t taste salt and sweetness the same way as you can on the ground. A study commissioned by Lufthansa showed that the combination of low cabin pressure and low humidity can reduce the effectiveness of your taste buds by as much as 30 per cent. In the dry air of the cabin your sense of smell is affected too. Because the sense of smell is so closely related to the sense of taste, this means your meal has the potential to taste even blander.
So, to make things taste more normal, airline caterers often add a lot more salt and sugar than you might do when you’re cooking at home.
Can alcohol make me drunker on a plane?
No. Studies have shown that this is not the case. The temptation to drink alcohol at odd hours of the day and night might mess you up though.
Can I get Business Class food in Economy?
Yes. Why not make everyone else envious? Some airlines allow you to pre-order upgraded meals. They charge an extra fee, of course. Airlines that do this include British Airways, Air France, KLM, and Austrian Airlines.
What about ‘special’ meals?
Vegetarian, vegan, Halal, Kosher, diabetic, gluten-free, child meal, or fruit platter? All these can usually be ordered online if you book your flight two to three days before departure.
On some Qantas flights you can select your meals before you fly if you book directly online with the airline. There are usually extra meals available exclusively for passengers who book online, at no extra cost.
This article was originally written by Marc Llewellyn on Skyscanner and has been republished with full permission.
Shout out to all Dads.
Here at Mamamia we are always looking for ways to make Mamamia even better. Dads, we need you to help us do that by filling out this quick 15 min survey for us. Click the button below for your say.