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The Lowdown on Airline Food

If you were a TWA first-class passenger traveling from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco in October 1970, your menu read more like a feast for the Sun King than a precooked meal heated in a convection oven. You might have started out with crêpe farcie aux fruits de mer, with lobster, shrimp, crabmeat, and scallops in a sauce of cream, butter, and sherry, followed by veal Orloff “studded with truffles.” After that, there were cheeses, Grand Marnier gâteau, fruits laced with kirsch, and after-dinner cocktails. TWA hoped the experience would be so memorable it even provided a special envelope for you to mail your menu to the folks back home.

Yes, those were the days. Passengers often adjourned to separate dining rooms, tables were set with crisp linens, and we could be trusted with cutlery. Cuisine remained a signature airline amenity, and was not yet the domain of (literal) bean counters. (Never mind that an economy-class ticket in 1970 cost about $300 round-trip, or $1,650 adjusted for inflation.)

In 1978 that all changed. De-regulation hit and the Civil Aeronautics Board ceded control over setting airfares. For the first time, airlines had to compete for passengers with lower prices and loyalty programs. Competition trimmed profit margins, putting a squeeze on carriers that continued unabated until the terrorist attacks of 2001 turned trouble into crisis. Suffering from heavy financial losses and scrambling for further cuts, airlines began targeting food. Shortly after 9/11, American Airlines and TWA stopped serving meals in their main cabins on domestic flights, followed by nearly every other U.S. carrier. According to the logic, it was a flight’s schedule and price that sold tickets—not its food. Today, among the five so-called U.S. legacy carriers, only Continental still serves complimentary in-flight meals on domestic routes, an anachronism the airline has built an entire advertising campaign around.

But there’s a new dynamic in the skies today. As passengers demand more for their money (especially in this economy), the race is on to capture the elusive paying customer in first and business class by stepping things up in the front of the plane. Lauri Curtis, vice president of onboard services at American Airlines, says of domestic flights, “We’re using the few dollars that we have to invest in the premium cabin. In the main cabin, we look at convenience.” In fact, although struggling U.S. carriers cut their spending on food from $5.92 in 1992 to $3.39 per passenger (across all cabins) in 2006, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, they’re shifting priorities again. The legacy carriers actually increased spending on food by four percent from 2007 to 2008—even as they were struggling to cut costs in the face of rising fuel prices.

To appeal to increasingly discerning palates, more and more domestic airlines are taking cues from international carriers, which have famously enlisted the help of boldface names to plan meals. For years American has relied on Southwestern cuisine chef Stephan Pyles and his Dallas colleague Dean Fearing to plan its in-flight menus. More recently, United began working with Charlie Trotter to devise healthy meals with an international twist, like wild mushroom risotto and herb-rubbed chicken. Delta, meanwhile, has tapped the skills of Michelle Bernstein, owner of Michy and Sra. Martinez restaurants in Miami, with nightlife entrepreneur Rande Gerber consulting on cocktails and master sommelier Andrea Robinson picking the wine.

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