How much effort—and money—do airlines really put toward feeding you in flight? Here’s what’s cooking in the skies.

By Amy FarleyJennifer FlowersStirling KelsoShira Nanus and Andrea Bennett
August 03, 2011

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

Yes, those were the days. Passengers often adjourned to separate dining rooms, tables were setwith crisp linens, and we could be trusted with cutlery. Cuisine remained a signature airlineamenity, and was not yet the domain of (literal) bean counters. (Never mind that an economy-classticket 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 oversetting airfares. For the first time, airlines had to compete for passengers with lower prices andloyalty programs. Competition trimmed profit margins, putting a squeeze on carriers that continuedunabated until the terrorist attacks of 2001 turned trouble into crisis. Suffering from heavyfinancial losses and scrambling for further cuts, airlines began targeting food. Shortly after9/11, 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’sschedule 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, ananachronism 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 andbusiness class by stepping things up in the front of the plane. Lauri Curtis, vice president ofonboard services at American Airlines, says of domestic flights, “We’re using the fewdollars that we have to invest in the premium cabin. In the main cabin, we look atconvenience.” 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 ofTransportation Statistics, they’re shifting priorities again. The legacy carriers actuallyincreased spending on food by four percent from 2007 to 2008—even as they were struggling tocut costs in the face of rising fuel prices.

To appeal to increasingly discerning palates, more and more domestic airlines are taking cuesfrom 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 colleagueDean Fearing to plan its in-flight menus. More recently, United began working with Charlie Trotterto devise healthy meals with an international twist, like wild mushroom risotto and herb-rubbedchicken. 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 andmaster sommelier Andrea Robinson picking the wine.

That’s not to suggest that Trotter’s in the galley making your risotto. Thesecelebrity chefs collaborate with companies like Gate Gourmet—whose kitchens crank out thefood for 200 million passengers a year across most of the world’s major airlines—totranslate 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 theonboard ovens and on the tray tables pose another problem. (Pyles’s famous Cowboy bone-in ribeye, for instance, had to be adjusted down to a fillet.) Add to these technical difficulties thefact 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 pressurizedcabin.” But after decades of food science and trial and error, he says, compensating for theloss no longer means adding 18 percent more salt and pepper to meals. “We’re usingherbs 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 AustrianAirlines and Gulf Air, actually place chefs on board to prepare meals in the premium classes, andmany airlines, including Austrian and Singapore, train flight attendants as sommeliers. International carriers also often showcase thecuisines of their country of origin: Abu Dhabi carrier Etihad Airways serves tiramisu laced withArabic coffee. Lufthansa features regional German produce such as Filder-Spitzkraut cabbage andBamberger Hörnla potatoes. And Japan Airlines pulls out all the stops, preparing traditionalcuisine in special onboard rice cookers.

Even as domestic airlines reinvent menus for front-of-the-plane passengers, those in the backare witnessing the advent of creative buy-on-board menus. What started with the sale of basic snackboxes has ballooned into a virtual arms race among airlines to provide fresh, healthy sandwichesand salads to domestic passengers. United recently added items such as a turkey and asparagus wrapand an Asian chicken salad, $9 each, and American’s new partnership with Boston Marketincludes a Chicken Carver and an Italian chopped salad, among others (all items are $10), on selectroutes. Chef Todd English, meanwhile, has developed a menu of dishes such as a goat cheese andvegetable 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 abuy-on-board program earlier this year. According to airlines’ studies, passengers areactually happier paying for something they want to eat rather than getting free food theydon’t. Virgin America points to research that revealed that economy passengers are willing tospend up to $21 on onboard services (including food and entertainment), but that the food needs tobe fresh and cocktails high quality.

Though airlines insist their buy-on-board programs are primarily intended to offer passengers abetter 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 snackboxes—about half the $6 purchase price—and confirm the profitability of its foodprogram.) But reaching a balance isn’t easy; some airlines are finding out the hard way whenthey’ve taken à la carte too far. Last year, United dropped plans to testbuy-on-board on transatlantic flights only weeks after announcing the program, because of passengerprotests. And US Airways had to reverse its policy of charging for soft drinks and bottled water ondomestic flights after only seven months.

For all their teams of accountants and high-powered consultants, reams of research, andcelebrity chefs, the airlines say their ultimate goal is to find that sweet spot where passengersin premium enjoy the service enough to pay extra, passengers in coach feel satisfied (and maybeeven 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 homeabout.

Guide to Airline Food

  • By Amy Farley
  • By Jennifer Flowers
  • By Stirling Kelso
  • By Shira Nanus
  • By Andrea Bennett