Airline food – is it possible to eat well at 35,000 feet?
When it comes to choosing which airline we fly with, it has to be said there’s not a huge amount of difference between competing carriers. Prices, schedules, destinations, even types of aircraft are all in the same league – although airlines with poor safety records don’t make it on Greedy Girl’s shopping list.
Talking about food in the air of course relates to the so-called ‘full service’ airlines, not their budget brethren where the grub is an optional extra. While frequent flyer programs have engendered a fair degree of brand loyalty for these major airlines over the years, continual erosion of the points value means – particularly when it comes to international travel – the market is wide open.
One of the key ways in which airlines try to differentiate their offering is in ancillary services – most notably from Greedy Girl’s point of view, in food and wine. But, given her preference for spending hard-earned cash on fine dining in the world’s great restaurants rather than sitting at the pointy end of aircraft, she has yet to fully evaluate the impact of such tie-ups as Neil Perry’s association with Qantas or Heston Blumenthal with British Airways. Having flown with both airlines in recent times (on international sectors) the food, such as it was, seemed to be worse than ever.
The science of reheating meals en masse in an aircraft galley, prepared and packed probably too many hours before they are served, wouldn’t help. There are a lot of reasons the travelling public would opt to pay a premium to travel but is food really a major factor?
The bottom line is, you’re never really sure what you’re going to get – and this is true of airline lounges as well as in the air. On a recent trip, the airline lounge in Melbourne offered some delicious treats – really good, crispy chips, spicy chicken wings, a decent schnitzel with tangy coleslaw, accompanied by some more than acceptable wines. On the return, with a temporary airline lounge operating at Singapore’s Changi airport (but now featuring the aforementioned Neil Perry’s cuisine in the newly-opened permanent lounge), the food selection was abysmal. There was an upside though, you could help yourself to the bottles of spirits and fix your own cocktail.
At New York’s JFK airport, the Admiral’s Club lounge (American Airlines and its code share partners) offered full breakfast privileges and Greedy Girl happily toasted fruit bread and made herself a passable coffee. The same airline’s lounge at LAX in 2011 – well, fuhgeddaboutit. The portents weren’t great when we were given ‘drink’ vouchers at check-in. You could get lots of things in the LAX lounge – as long as you were prepared to pay for them. It was basically just a separate boarding gate with a few newspapers. Apparently things have improved – and will continue to do so once Qantas has its new lounge open, due in October this year.
Lounge experiences notwithstanding, for those of us in the cheap seats on board, it’s the same old, same old. There’s much that can be said of the aroma of ‘stewed’ meat or fish being trolleyed down the aisle and dispensed one irradiated foil parcel at a time, but nothing good.
So how can airlines provide something approaching a decent feed for the vast majority of their passengers sitting in cattle class? Greedy Girl has been known eat a large meal before boarding and then self-catering with fruit and biscuits. A tip: if you’re keeping fruit in your hand luggage on a flight to Australia you need to make sure that you leave anything uneaten on the plane and keep the fruit in a sturdy, separate plastic bag. Greedy Girl was less than amused at Melbourne airport one time when the sniffer dog sat beside her wheelie case, having caught a whiff of the bananas and apples it had previously contained.
For many years, Greedy Girl ordered a vegetarian meal for all flights. At the time she was flying regularly between Sydney and Melbourne and the special meal had two advantages – it was generally served first, before the trolleys hit the aisle, and it was vaguely edible. After two years of being presented with, invariably, vegetables in tomato sauce served with white rice, even she couldn’t countenance it again.
The best economy meals have generally been those that emanate from Asia. Cathay Pacific still has Greedy Girl’s vote for the best breakfast, an assortment of dumplings whose skins were rather chewier than normal because of the reheating but more than edible. Still, the breakfast on a recent Qantas flight from Singapore to Melbourne was a basic pain aux raisins. Combined with an early morning cup of tea, it achieved what it set out to do and was a step in the right direction, away from horrendous attempts at egg and sausage.
A UK study reported by the BBC found that background noise affects the intensity of flavour and perceived crunchiness of foods. The article, published in October 2010 says diners were blindfolded and played white noise – louder noise reduced the reported sweetness or saltiness.
It went on to say that this phenomenon may explain why airline food tastes so bland. Certainly Greedy Girl is often guilty of emptying the salt and pepper sachets into her rubbery meat on the rare occasions she’s felt compelled to try to eat something.
Are airlines complicating their food? Should they just offer the simplest, often pre-packaged items (such as mini-pizza or individual focaccia) and forget about ‘chicken or beef’ – another anachronism of modern air travel like getting travel socks or an exit row seat you don’t have to pay for.
Airports are increasingly being seen as opportunities for major chefs to expand their franchises. Gordon Ramsay, for example, has a picnic box option to take on board flights leaving Heathrow while Jamie Oliver has a food outlet at Gatwick. Wolfgang Puck’s food is available at airports throughout the US and the phenomenon of top chefs trying to take advantage of their ‘captive audiences’ in airports was the subject of a Washington Post article.
In Australia, local uber-chef Shannon Bennett has opened his Cafe Vue outlet at Melbourne Airport. Given the shortest international flight from Melbourne is probably three hours across the ditch to New Zealand, it makes sense to fuel up before you board, but unless you’re flying a major sector from other destinations – say more than five hours – do you really need to eat what’s offered on your flight, boredom or medical conditions notwithstanding?
Certainly the only things worth consuming are generally those that airlines (or their caterers) have not had any direct involvement with other than to heat up or keep cool. Greedy Girl thinks it’s time for a more streamlined approach – and provide something people actually want to eat.