That’s not to suggest that Trotter’s in the galley making your risotto. These celebrity chefs collaborate with companies like Gate Gourmet—whose kitchens crank out the food for 200 million passengers a year across most of the world’s major airlines—to translate their visions into something that works at 30,000 feet. That’s no small feat, considering that the food will travel through a blast chiller and assembly lines, across a tarmac, and into at least two ovens before it gets to your seat. Meanwhile, space considerations in the onboard ovens and on the tray tables pose another problem. (Pyles’s famous Cowboy bone-in rib eye, for instance, had to be adjusted down to a fillet.) Add to these technical difficulties the fact that by some estimations, says Bob Rosar, executive chef of Gate Gourmet North America, “you could lose 18 percent of your flavor profile, or sense of taste, in a pressurized cabin.” But after decades of food science and trial and error, he says, compensating for the loss no longer means adding 18 percent more salt and pepper to meals. “We’re using herbs and flavored vinegars to build the flavors at every level. Instead of baking your chicken, we’ll sear it or grill it.”
Of course, few U.S. carriers can provide meals on the same scale as international airlines, which haven’t faced comparable financial difficulties. Some carriers, such as Austrian Airlines and Gulf Air, actually place chefs on board to prepare meals in the premium classes, and many airlines, including Austrian and Singapore, train flight attendants as sommeliers. International carriers also often showcase the cuisines of their country of origin: Abu Dhabi carrier Etihad Airways serves tiramisu laced with Arabic coffee. Lufthansa features regional German produce such as Filder-Spitzkraut cabbage and Bamberger Hörnla potatoes. And Japan Airlines pulls out all the stops, preparing traditional cuisine in special onboard rice cookers.
Even as domestic airlines reinvent menus for front-of-the-plane passengers, those in the back are witnessing the advent of creative buy-on-board menus. What started with the sale of basic snack boxes has ballooned into a virtual arms race among airlines to provide fresh, healthy sandwiches and salads to domestic passengers. United recently added items such as a turkey and asparagus wrap and an Asian chicken salad, $9 each, and American’s new partnership with Boston Market includes a Chicken Carver and an Italian chopped salad, among others (all items are $10), on select routes. Chef Todd English, meanwhile, has developed a menu of dishes such as a goat cheese and vegetable salad ($8) for Delta’s main cabin. JetBlue, which famously gives out free snacks, has even been investigating the possibility of selling food on its flights; it tested a buy-on-board program earlier this year. According to airlines’ studies, passengers are actually happier paying for something they want to eat rather than getting free food they don’t. Virgin America points to research that revealed that economy passengers are willing to spend up to $21 on onboard services (including food and entertainment), but that the food needs to be fresh and cocktails high quality.
Though airlines insist their buy-on-board programs are primarily intended to offer passengers a better in-flight experience, they are also part of a larger effort to build up non-airfare revenue. (Of U.S.-based carriers, only Virgin America would discuss the base cost of its snack boxes—about half the $6 purchase price—and confirm the profitability of its food program.) But reaching a balance isn’t easy; some airlines are finding out the hard way when they’ve taken à la carte too far. Last year, United dropped plans to test buy-on-board on transatlantic flights only weeks after announcing the program, because of passenger protests. And US Airways had to reverse its policy of charging for soft drinks and bottled water on domestic flights after only seven months.
For all their teams of accountants and high-powered consultants, reams of research, and celebrity chefs, the airlines say their ultimate goal is to find that sweet spot where passengers in premium enjoy the service enough to pay extra, passengers in coach feel satisfied (and maybe even happy) with their experience, and carriers can stay solvent. If they get it right? Here’s hoping domestic airline food will one day again be good enough to write home about.