Airline meals were once lavish and luxurious – a brief history of how they’ve changed over the years

If you took an American Airlines flight in the 1960s, you would be dining on the Royal Coachman’s First Class menu. Your dinner started with beef or chicken breast stewed in summer and ended with desserts.

Today, if you’re traveling by air, you’ll need to book a long-haul international flight or—perhaps if you’re lucky—a domestic coast-to-coast flight to get a free meal. On shorter flights, you can get a choice of cookies or pretzels.

Airplane food has come a long way from the glory days of in-flight dining, when meals were served on white tablecloths and delicately served by flight attendants.

The missing meals have joined a long list of pain points, inconveniences and cuts that fliers endure today. But the reduction of the costs of the industry is not the only reason that the foods have disappeared, Telegrafi reports.

The end of in-flight dining for many passengers unsurprisingly came as a result of major changes in government regulation, aircraft design, in-flight movies, industry tax cuts, plus increased health and safety concerns.

Airline safety protocols and regulations since 9/11 have changed what types of cooking knives aircrews can work with. Airplane galleries are smaller to allow more seats for passengers on an airplane. And airlines don’t serve certain foods, like peanuts, to protect people with allergies. Meals are often smaller, lighter or non-existent.

“Meal service used to be a point of pride,” said Henry Harteveldt, who covers the travel industry for Atmosphere Research Group. Now, “the quality is so poor that you have to ask yourself: Is it worth feeding?”

Airlines have long sought ways to reduce food production costs and reduce meal preparation time for flight attendants. In one famous example during the 1980s, Robert Crandall, then the head of American Airlines, boasted how removing just one olive from every salad saved the airline $40,000 a year.

Cost and speed became more important to airlines than the taste of food from then on.

Carriers like Singapore Airlines or Delta may have partnerships with celebrity chefs with Michelin stars, but most companies outsource their food to catering services, which can prepare it hours in advance.

“People are willing to trade food for low prices,” said Blaise Waguespack, professor of airline marketing at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. “Your ticket secures your seat. And everything beyond the chair you pay for,” he added.

Charging passengers for in-flight meals – even just a few dollars for a sandwich, snack box or cheese plate – is also a way for airlines to save on taxes. Domestic flight tickets are subject to a federal excise tax of 7.5 percent, but that tax does not apply to baggage fees and in-flight meals, both of which are becoming more expensive.

Free caviar and chewing gum

Airplane food has been around for a century, since the 1920s when flight attendants handed out chewing gum to passengers to relieve the pressure in their ears. Early airplanes “bounced” so much in flight that meals were served on paper plates, according to the Smithsonian.

For decades, the federal government regulated tickets and airlines, so airlines tried to set themselves apart with the service, food, and type of luxury they usually offered passengers.

Until 1978, when the airline industry was deregulated, the law required each passenger to receive an extra ticket that included two vegetables, a salad, dessert and a drink as part of the ticket price, according to the Smithsonian.

“Tasty food adds to the pleasure. It is prepared in four galleries operating simultaneously, where dishes can be cooked in five-minute ovens,” advertised Pan Am in a 1958 ad.

During the 1960s and 1970s, airlines routinely installed high-end kitchens on board and advertised their menus to attract customers. Beef was a business strategy.

“Airlines competed on service and amenities. Meal service was a big focus of [the competition] because the entertainment options were more limited,” Harteveldt said. “Airlines would have teams of chefs, their catering kitchens [and] advertising around food,” he added.

Meanwhile, airlines reduced ticket prices. But to make up for lost revenue, they reduced food choices and other services as well.

The 9/11 attacks accelerated the decline of free airline meals. The latter faced a deep reduction and this affected in-flight meals. United, American Airlines, Delta and others announced sharp reductions in in-flight meal service shortly after the attacks.

The latest backer, Continental Airlines, became the last major airline to end free domestic meals in economy class in 2010.

Airline meals have been the subject of jokes and criticism for decades, but now people miss them. Few airline industry experts see them returning to coach anytime soon.

The reality is very different for business and first class passengers.

Molly Brandt, chief executive of culinary innovation for North America at in-flight catering company Gategroup, said “the golden age for airline food is here.”

It just depends on the airline you’re flying and the category you’re in. “It’s separated by cabin class,” she explained.

If you’re in first class on an American flight, for example, you might have a choice for lunch of a Mediterranean bowl, chicken breast with mojo sauce, rice with black poblano beans and plantains, or penne pasta with plant-based ragout and ricotta. . For Delta, choose between the cheeseburger, spinach and cheese agnolotti, or a Hempler smoked chicken breast salad.

A handful of airlines even offer caviar to first class passengers. But most fliers these days don’t even get free gum.

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