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Business travellers love to hate what they are given to eat on airlines. But some, it seems, have a strange obsession for high-flying cuisine. At last count, airlinemeals.net – an oddly entertaining website – had more than 4m hits. The site is certainly comprehensive, showing thousands of pictures of meals on more than 500 airlines, as well as behind-the-scenes shots of their preparation. In addition, a collection of vintage posters is displayed, one of which inadvertently reveals something of the absurdity of delivering three-course meals at 30,000 feet in the air.

In a 1966 TWA poster, a vast spread of dishes is displayed. On a large table, the array includes the sort of roasted meats, selections of cheeses, lavish piles of fruit and elaborately decorated deserts that are sometimes seen in old master paintings. “There hasn’t been anything like our Royal Ambassador first class menu since Henry VIII invented banquets,” the poster tells us.

Today, few would feel that in-flight food lives up to this kind of claim. And as cost cutting remains high on the aviation industry agenda, the airline meal is becoming an endangered species. Travellers on domestic US flights, for example, must often cater for themselves, and a number of food companies have rushed to help them do so, setting up small booths selling sandwiches and snacks in the departure lounge. Other airlines have introduced buy-on-board programmes.

The idea of bringing food with you on to the plane is not so new. In the 1930s, passengers would order their food the night before flying. “The food was usually supplied by the hotel or guest house where the passengers had spent the night,” writes Peter Jones, author of Flight Catering. “The food was packed in bags and boxes, vacuum and thermos flasks, delivered on hand-pushed carts and loaded by hand into the aeroplane.”

As the TWA ad demonstrates, however, the ability to prepare and serve elaborate meals onboard the flight soon became a selling point for the airlines. Top chefs have frequently been enlisted to come up with menus for airlines, while carriers such as British Airways, Singapore Airlines and American Airlines have recruited leading wine experts to select the correct vintage to serve with the culinary offerings.

But while designing the menu and wine list is one thing, delivering the dinner itself is another. For a start, the ability to get the right meal on the right aircraft requires a dazzling demonstration of logistical prowess – particularly when you consider the volume and variety of meals served in the air.

Take Continental Airlines, one of the only US airlines to retain its food service on domestic flights. The airline produces 33m meals a year and has more than 100 different menus, cycled periodically. Each year, the airline boards 55m sodas and juices, 45m pounds of ice, 3.5m quarts of orange juice and 30m bags of pretzels and peanuts.

To help avoid errors, Continental has established a website that is used by its in-house supplier, Chelsea Catering, and other suppliers such as Gate Gourmet or LSG Sky Chefs. The site provides detailed information on the meals themselves and how they are to be boarded.

“Every flight has codes that tell the caterer what to board on to the aircraft,” explains Sandra Pineau, vice-president of food services at Continental. “And then we have galley diagrams where we tell them, for example, that on a 777, you put it in position 102 and that this carrier has plastic glasses. It goes even down to the cut of tomato.”

As well as dealing with logistical headaches, airlines have to adhere to the strict union regulations that require, for example, that cabin crew take a sufficient break in between meal servings (this is often the reason carriers are forced to deliver the second meal close to the end of the flight).

Added to this constraint is the curious fact that high altitudes alter the human taste buds in such a way that something that might taste quite decent on the ground could become unpalatable in the air.

“This first came to my attention about 12 years ago when I was working as one of the company’s wine buyers,” says Andy Sparrow, menu development manager at BA, who has been in the business for 30 years. “We noticed a definite difference between wines tasted at ground level to how they would taste in the aircraft.”

BA found, after doing some research, that it was not the wine that changed in the aircraft but the palette of the person drinking it, and this was due to various conditions that exist on an aircraft that do not exist at ground level – everything from the body’s bio-rhythms and stress patterns to dehydration, light and the vibration of the aircraft.

“We found that more powerful, new world, fruit-driven styles worked very well,” explains Mr Sparrow. “And if a wine had acidity at ground level, sometimes it could be over aggressive up in the air – which is why you shouldn’t see wines like Muscadet on board. So, when I moved to the food side five years ago, I brought this thought process with me and asked the team to think about it when designing food.”

The final challenge for the airline industry is pleasing a plane full of people, all of whom have different preferences – particularly in countries where cuisine varies wildly from region to region and religious requirements govern what people can and cannot eat. On BA flights in India, for example, the airline produces a different menu for almost every destination it serves.

Taking into account all the constraints faced by airline caterers, it is perhaps remarkable that airlines manage to deliver any food at all. Mr Sparrow certainly agrees. “After all,” he says, “it’s hardly a natural thing to be feeding 300 people in a large metal tube flying at 500 miles an hour at 30,000 feet above ground.”

Sarah Murray is writing a food book, “Moveable Feasts: the Incredible Journeys of the Things We Eat”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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