Just Be Grateful Airlines Can Feed You At All

Nobody, it seems, is happy with the food served on planes. But it may surprise you to learn that it’s our own fault. The customer is to blame. Biologically, humans just aren’t designed to fully appreciate flavours while travelling 800 kilometres an hour, 36,000 feet in the air, enclosed in a pressurised cabin, partly dehydrated and breathing in less oxygen. (Flying, never forget, is bloody awful.)

But just as importantly, we don’t appreciate just how amazing it is we get food on planes at all.

Flight catering is one of the most complex businesses in the world – it is 90 per cent logistics and just 10 per cent catering.

In an episode of MasterChef last week, the contestants were overwhelmed by the task of feeding 450 guests at an Indian wedding. Poor them. A single Boeing 747 can carry more than 500 people and all the food is heated and served from a tiny galley by flight attendants who double as passenger safety co-ordinators.

An airline catering firm has to supply dozens of those flights. The typical industrial airline kitchen produces more than 40,000 meals a day. The world’s biggest, Emirates Flight Catering Centre in Dubai, does 115,000 a day. Inflight food is a huge task, and one which we pay no attention to – unless we’re complaining about it.

This is capitalism’s big public relations problem. If it is working properly (if products are exactly where we want them, when we want them, at a price we are happy to pay), we don’t notice how much human effort and ingenuity goes into even the smallest things.

Inflight service wasn’t always this complex. The first meals were sandwiches, made on the ground and served in the air with tea and coffee. In the 1920s Imperial Airways (an ancestor of British Airways) had 14-year-old cabin boys in monkey jackets serve passengers. The boys had to weigh less than 40 kilograms. The planes were small and underpowered. Forty kilograms was all the extra load they could carry.

The first proper flight attendants were hired in 1930 by a predecessor of United Airlines. They were all qualified nurses. The flights were bumpy and there was no pressurised cabin. It’s been estimated one in four passengers were physically sick on each journey. The nurses took the food out, then cared for the diners when it was brought back up again.

But it was not until the wave of airline deregulation in the 1970s and 1980s that serious attention was paid to the great problem of inflight food: we can’t really taste it. The low humidity and high altitude make taste buds 30 per cent less effective. So all meals served in the air are what we’d describe on the ground as heavy and rich – cream, pasta, stews and lots of sauce. The wines are full bodied. There’s no prize for subtlety inflight.

Cooking in such volume, airlines can certainly save large amounts of money by skimping on ingredients. And in an effort to wrestle prices down further, many airlines now charge for food. Still, it’s not heartless neoliberal bean-counting that makes the food so unappealing. It’s our frail human palate.

The dishes are better in first class and business, but even in economy plane food isn’t anywhere as bad as we imagine.

Most great innovations in the modern world are completely out of sight. They concern not the products we buy or the services we use, but how we get them.

When politicians try to describe progress they talk of tangible things such as iPhones and synchrotrons – things that can be manufactured and photographed. But they ought to talk of supply chains, digital inventories and logistics.

Complex supply chains are behind the success of Amazon.com and Walmart. One of the greatest inventions of the 20th century was the humble shipping container, which allowed the rise of just-in-time production. Now even modern manufacturing should be seen less as a “good” and more as a “service” – products are the end result of taut lines of supply.

What we eat in the air is a perfect example of our modern logistical genius. Dishes such as “Italian-style braised beef with pumpkin” are refined to within an inch of their life. They are made not so much according to recipes as blueprints.

The marvel of inflight dining is not its taste, but how it got there. Airline food is a sliver of modern capitalism we consume quickly and, just as quickly, forget about.