The Unappetising Truth About Airline Meals

April 21, 2017

The worst thing about a long-haul flight is, without doubt, the food. Forget turbulence, screaming toddlers or unexplained delays, meal times on a plane are almost universally unpleasant — and often stomach-churning — experiences.

At best, the food is edible. At worst, it’s a scalding hot plastic tub of gloopy stew, overcooked rice or leathery meat and vegetables that have been boiled beyond all recognition.

Chef Gordon Ramsay is certainly no fan. He recently revealed he refuses to eat on planes, bringing his own spread to keep him going.

‘I worked on airlines for ten years, so I know where this food’s been and where it goes, and how long it took before it got on board,’ he said. Ramsay, it must be acknowledged, has a vested interest in knocking in-flight cuisine. His restaurant, Plane Food, based in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, sells takeaway boxes designed to be eaten at 35,000ft. But is he right? Is it really all that bad? We reveal the unappetising truth about airline meals . . .

Whether you sit in first or cattle class, the food comes from the same place: an industrial kitchen near the airport, where it’s cooked before take-off — then reheated on board.

In Europe, most meals come from Gate Gourmet in Switzerland or LSG Sky Chefs in Germany — serving more than 260 airlines.

Most of these industrial kitchens prepare around 25,000 meals a day; the world’s biggest, the Emirates Flight Catering Centre in Dubai, makes up to 170,000. That’s 58 million bread rolls, 4,300 tons of chicken and 3.6 tons of lobster a year. Peter Jones, a retired professor of travel catering from Surrey University, says one billion airline meals are consumed annually in an industry worth £10 billion a year.

‘The challenge isn’t the food,’ he says, ‘it is getting the food and the other items on board. A jumbo jet needs 40,000 separate items loaded every flight, sometimes in 90 minutes.’

Despite stickers claiming it is ‘freshly prepared’, most plane food is produced long before it is served to passengers. Usually, the meals are made between 12 and 72 hours in advance. But, adds Prof Jones: ‘It can be kept in a chilled stage for five days under the internationally recognised food hygiene standards.’

Salads, desserts, bread rolls, plastic cutlery and napkins are put on trays in catering units on the ground and then stacked in trolleys ready to be wheeled down the cabin aisle.

Hot dishes are made in large industrial pans and decanted into plastic containers with foil lids before being ‘blast chilled’ to around 5C in 90 minutes.

They’re then stacked in chilled metal boxes until they’re taken on board the plane.

First class passengers like to think they’re getting freshly cooked meals. But their food is also prepared on the ground, though it may be plated up in the first-class cabin.

Some chefs provide ‘step-by-step’ assembly instructions to help cabin crew present more intricate dishes — so even if the dishes come from the same place, at least they look more appealing.

There’s also the benefit of metal knives and forks over the infamous plastic cutlery that is provided to economy passengers.

Not only is the latter very fiddly to use, but scientists have shown that it makes food taste worse — because of a phenomenon known as ‘sensation transference’, which converts a negative visual sensation into an unpleasant flavour.

Prof Charles Spence, an Oxford University psychologist and author of Gastrophysics: The New Science Of Eating, says: ‘We’ve shown that if you have heavy cutlery you rate food better and will pay more. Plastic takes you down by ten per cent.’

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