So, you just peeled back the plastic off a freshly-delivered tray right off your airplane’s trolley cart and the mess looking back at you is a grim one. The fault may not lie with the chef, though, but in the plane’s design.
Everything is reheated
The very nature of air travel, as well as how the plane is built and how it adjusts to high altitudes, make food preparation fundamentally more difficult.
There are some technical limitations to being high in the air that make it far simpler to just reheat pre-made food, rather than attempt to actually cook from scratch — particularly in the pressurised air of the plane’s cabin.
Although planes routinely cruise at altitudes of around 40,000 feet, the pressure of the cabin is brought back down to more comfortable altitudes of between six and nine thousand feet above sea level. Even those lowered altitudes, though, are still enough to slow down cook times considerably.
"It’s actually very hard to cook at those altitudes,” explains John Hansman, who directs the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They generally are just doing reheating.”
It’s not just the difficulties of cooking, though. Even the food service encourages heat-and-serve style meals. The preference in hot airline meals is for precut, reheated meats, usually swimming in sauce, like boeuf bourguignon. In part, the sauce works to counteract the dryness of the pressurised air cabin. But both the sauce and the slow reheat time also suit today’s blunt-edged airline cutlery sets, which have either no knife or an unsharpened one.
Because it's been so overcooked, you can cut it with a fork.
“Airlines have discovered that, if you also pre-cut the meat, you practically don’t need a knife,” says Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Albright College in the US state of Pennsylvania who studies the history of technology, particularly aviation. "Because it's been so overcooked, you can cut it with a fork."
Perhaps the biggest consideration, though, is simply available space.
More passengers, bigger planes, less attention to individual meals
Today’s passenger planes are designed to carry well over 300 hundred passengers, all of whom expect to be fed on roughly the same schedule. Before the popularisation of the jet in the 1960s, though, de Syon notes that passenger manifests were small, usually fewer than 50 people, giving flight attendants time to devote attention to each passenger’s meal service.
Some of those early hot options would seem unrecognisably lavish to today’s travellers, with menus that featured cooked-to-order omelettes, or mobile carving stations wheeled from seat-to-seat by an attendant. With hundreds to serve instead of dozens, though, today’s flight attendants simply no longer have the time to prep individual trays. Instead, the trays need to arrive ready to go.
The large array of food options on offer to airplane passengers in the '60s and '70s simply doesn’t exist in most air travel anymore. But, that doesn’t mean the menu has completely disappeared. It’s just been replaced by menus of another sort.
The trays need to arrive ready to go.
In the last decade, the number of entertainment options aboard the average aeroplane have exploded — and the design of the seats and cabin have changed to reflect this.
Designed for your entertainment — not your food
Passengers are offered music, often wi-fi, and, most importantly, a large menu of films and TV options served up on demand on personalised screens installed in their seat, instead of a single large screen up front. The installation of personalised screens has taken a lot of focus away from the food service, allowing airlines to cut back on food expenses as they spend more money on entertainment.
"What are TV dinners about after all?” asks de Syon. “There’s a very definite shift in trying to find a way to keep the passengers busy. Until the '90s, you only had a choice of one movie. That was it. What they found after the '90s was that if you had more to choose from, then passengers are happier and more patient.”
It shows how far technology has come since the beginning of commercial air travel. But those same shifts during the early years that first brought the hot airline meal into prominence could ultimately be what kills it.
How could new planes affect your next in-flight meal?
In the earliest days of air travel, planes lacked the kinds of powerful engines that could generate enough spare electrical power to heat food. This meant passengers were largely restricted to eating boxed lunches of whatever could be easily packed from the ground, usually sandwiches or cold snacks.
As planes got both bigger and more powerful, airlines began to include functional kitchens in their plane design, clearing the way for the hot meals we see today to be served. Offering more and better food initially gave airlines a way of distinguishing themselves from their competitors.
Today, though, ticket cost is the primary measure of competition and cutting out a meal or two can either add to the airline’s bottom line, or give it a little extra room to undercut a competitor’s price.
Profits [could be] gained from chopping the kitchen out of the plane almost entirely.
"Nowadays airlines are breaking out the expenses and leaving it up to consumers to choose what they want,” said Bob van der Linden, who is the air transportation curator at the US National Air & Space Museum. “It’s the market. This is pure economics. After deregulation in ’78, airlines are free to compete anyway that they want — and they found the best way to compete is low prices."
But even more valuable than saving the cost of all those half-eaten meal trays could be the profits gained from chopping the kitchen out of the plane almost entirely — popping in extra seats to be sold.
"Because of the interest in reducing cost, many airlines have tried to put more seats on aeroplanes. That’s part of the reason you see some airlines not having any hot service, because it reduces the size of the galley and that gives room for seats,” noted Hansman. Even the size of the tray tables themselves, he says, are shrinking as airlines attempt to maximise every inch of onboard space.
The shrinking space for food doesn’t, however, mean that airline meals are completely disappearing. But, as airlines look for ways to trim budgets and save space, they’re turning back to those same ground-prepped cold snacks and sandwiches that airlines began their food service with decades ago.
“We’re moving back to the box lunches that we started with in the US during the late ‘30s, early 40s. Something that can be easily transported. Nothing terribly perishable, basically a box lunch, a picnic lunch,” said van der Linden. “We’ve kind of come full circle in a way.”
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