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Food with Altitude

Just why is airplane food so derided and what can be done to improve our in-flight culinary experience?

There are certain culinary experiences that we all bond over dismissing – the late night kebab, a school dinner served by a cost cutting council, any microwavable facsimile of a burger. There is a grudging acceptance that, especially in the UK, the meals served during an unfortunate hospital stay will without doubt, be un-nutritious and paradoxically potentially loaded with just the kind of ingredients one should avoid if one wants to eat and stay healthy. Above all of these, one meal has perhaps become the benchmark of all that is bad in the industry. Even the name is synonymous with over-processed, bland food – the airline meal.

Perhaps we are too quick to dismiss the in-flight food we are served. I'm always intrigued by the willingness of certain carriers to serve meals given the short duration of a flight. It's not as if as passengers we've left an airport where food isn't available – no train company would ever decide they had to serve everyone on a London to Glasgow train.

The notion of being fed on a flight is one of the last vestiges of the grand days of aviation, when flying long haul took hours and there was really very little to do except eat, drink and smoke. In the days when only the wealthy could afford to fly, food was served across many courses with real crockery and cutlery, and was seen both as a way of breaking the monotony and as a necessity due to the length of the flight. The jet engine made travel cheaper and passenger numbers increased – the crockery and cutlery moved behind the curtain to the rarefied air of business class, and those in economy were fed from trays. It is perhaps no coincidence that the post-war era also saw the creation of the airline meal's landlocked cousin –the TV dinner. Food slipped off the dining table to be served in and on a plastic tray. Progress.

It wasn't only the rise of the age of plastic - there are significant factors that determine the quality of the food we are served. The first is that running any airline is notoriously expensive, and food (especially that served in economy) is simply another cost that affects the bottom line. The second is the logistics involved in producing each meal. Gate Gourmet prepares food for over 9000 flights daily – that's over 250 million passenger meals a year. LSG SkyChefs is the world's largest, with 300 airline partners, dishing up a staggering 578 million meals per annum. That's a lot of food, all of it prepared off-site, shipped in, chilled and loaded before take off. Any hot food served on a plane has to be robust enough to survive being reheated onboard within the incredibly tight surroundings of an airplane galley, hence the industry mantra that 'wetter is better' – covering meat dishes in sauce has long been considered the ideal way to keep food at its best through the heating process. A rather rudimentary yet effective solution.

covering meat dishes in sauce has long been considered the ideal way to keep food at its best through the heating process. A rather rudimentary yet effective solution.

Added to these practicalities are other more subtle physiological reasons as to why eating on a plane is never satisfying. Science shows that a pressurised cabin is not conducive to the appreciation of food for a number of reasons. Our sense of taste is inherently linked to our smell receptors. On a jet our noses literally dry up due to lack of moisture in the air, meaning that the 80% of our sense of taste that is defined by our sense of smell drastically diminishes. Consulting for one airline, Heston Blumenthal suggested the introduction of nasal spray that would reboot a passenger's sense of smell before a meal, a suggestion that was merely sniffed at and never introduced. One small consolation for us mere mortals is that in economy the humidity level tends to be higher and our nasal passages slightly less dry, hopefully leading to a better appreciation of our Rioja than those reclining in first.

Of course, general ambience plays a part in how we perceive a meal, and prising open a plastic thimble of UHT in the cramped confines of the middle seat is never going to be a groundbreaking culinary experience. To add to the turbulence, proximity of other's elbows and general anxiety levels there is another almost unnoticed factor that appears to impact on our enjoyment –white noise. Studies conducted by Manchester University into the link between sound and taste show that the drone of an aircraft's engine might play a significant role in the way our taste buds diminish once airborne.

All these givens aside, airlines are actively upping their game as their global audience gets more diverse and demanding. Turkish Airlines feel so confident we'll enjoy their on-board fare that its new advertising campaign is based entirely on the quality of their food, highlighting their most inspired dishes.



1. Unlock the fifth flavour
The mystery of our dwindling taste (around 30% less than on the ground) perplexed the airline industry for years – leading to food being pumped full of salt and sugar to accommodate. This obviously isn't a perfect solution, and is one of the many factors that gave the industry a bad culinary reputation. There is one flavour that doesn't seem to be affected by altitude – umami. Thought to be the reason why passengers enjoy the umami rich tomato juice that makes up an inflight Bloody Mary, it's found in spinach, mushrooms, parmesan cheese and has been a key ingredient in menus developed by airlines such as British Airways.

2. Spice it up
A quick scan of the Skytrax awards show that the Asian airlines generally score highly for their food offering, with Thai Airways currently voted best economy meal by passengers. Asian cuisine is particularly suited to this challenge. On a practical level curry is easy to eat and perhaps also a little simpler to heat than a traditional British fare – the sauce being an integral part of the meal, not a disguise for the dried up meat that lurks below. Asian food has another aspect in its favour - it's spiciness.

3. Celebrate the limitations
There's a lot to be said to working within tight constraints, it's an approach that would definitely benefit the airline meal. A less westernised approach to the food delivery also seems appropriate - the need to have a knife, fork and plate seems strangely quaint. Bowls, bento boxes or tagines all provide better ways to serve food when space is at a premium, simplifying the process down and shifting the emphasis to eating with a single fork, spoon or even by hand. Sharing dishes could make the experience more convivial - it's a format that is supported by many cuisines, from tapas to Middle Eastern flat breads and dips. It would be interesting to give a chef free reign to look at the entire process from the means of production, storage and serving - and see exactly what they could create.