From Gourmet Meals to Government Rules: Why Better Airline Food In ‘The Good Old Days’ Left Passengers Worse Off

I’m often an advocate of airlines investing in offering a better and more premium product – not for ultra low cost carriers, of course, but high cost airlines need to earn a revenue premium and to do that they need to attract high yield business.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I long for the ‘good old days’ of air travel in the 60s and 70s. It turns out memes like this one have the story of great on board meals exactly backwards.

Airlines are one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country. Airports in the U.S. are nearly all government-owned. Security is performed directly by the government. Air traffic control – telling planes where to go and when – is handled directly by the government. All three of these things are out of step with much of the developed world.

Nearly everything about air travel under the direct control of an airline is heavily regulated. Take for instance, the process American Airlines had to go through just to hand out hand sanitizer on planes even though the FAA had already done a study to determine it was safe to do so (and even though passengers were allowed to bring on their own).

The extend of airline regulation is often surprising to people who ‘know that’ airlines were deregulated in 1978. Few people know what that means. Prior to the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act the government told airlines where they were allowed to fly and told them what prices they could charge. Those practices, for the most part, are what has changed.

And what people forget about the government’s role in pricing is that it wasn’t to protect the consumer but largely to ensure airline profitability. Prices were set at a level that few could afford, but one where airlines could make a profit, because of a prevailing belief that ‘ruinous competition’ would put airlines in a position of having to skimp on safety.

But forbidding airlines from competing on price for customers forced to pay premium pricing didn’t mean that airlines didn’t compete for customers who would pay premium pricing. They couldn’t cut the price of a ticket (until the Civil Aeronautics Board began ‘experimenting with price competition’ in 1976). So they competed on service and food.

The food that used to be served on planes was a way of competing for high priced tickets. The Civil Aeronautics Board even once discussed the need to regulate the thickness of sandwiches to prevent airlines from offering food that was too good as a form of competition, which is what they were trying to prevent.

While we can look longingly at the food offerings of yesteryear, those only existed because tickets were priced beyond affordability and competition with lower fares was against the law, at least where federal regulations applied (i.e. not for intra-state airlines like PSA and Southwest).

In fact it’s the end of the lavish meals for most airline passengers that has marked the progress of civilization.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Was nice though. Rack of lamb in TWA F across the Atlantic. Even my old brain remembers. As long as someone else was paying.

  2. Lately, these photos seem to be making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. I’m not sure any of them are truly real. They all looked staged. Photos for advertising in the 60s and 70s. I’m not sure it was ever as “nice” as the photos. Especially when they show 1970s-era passengers in economy-class on a 747 with a half-empty cabin. I doubt those cabins were truly half-empty.

  3. It was as nice as the photos. TWA for example served Chateaubriand in domestic first class and it wasn’t even hard for them to get it just right. They froze the strip of meat after cooking it to medium rare on the ground then flash heated it on board so the outside was beautifully browned, put it on the trolley and sliced off your portion as they moved down the aisle.

  4. I know that the better food was a result of a type of competition with regulation, but I can’t say that they were entirely wrong either. I mean, let’s look at the Boeing problems. Let’s look at passengers getting beaten up by security for simply standing their ground after being allowed to boarded because the airline didn’t want to buy the seat back.

    Running an airline is hard, but passengers are also placed in the position of being captives, and having their lives put on hold and their time thrown in the trash by poor airline management. Then the taxpayer bails the airline out anyways.

    It might be time to bring a bit more competition regulation back into play.

  5. I never saw any of that because my first flights were in 1987 and most of my flights have been in coach. Most airline food was at least ok. Transpacific flights on Asian carriers have better food that is also presented better, at least with the airlines I have flown.

  6. I think the post was pointing to the decline in demographics and class as opposed to food. Yes, nearly everyone is better off with flying today because airfares for all classes of service are down, inflation adjusted. Service tends to suck now and is subpar even in business class or domestic first class but we have actual beds which is cool. I’m sure all sane people wish we’d go back to the image of how things were when cities and neighborhoods weren’t full of troublemakers and people had better values. All the people who fought in WWII probably would regret who they fought against given what America looks like today.

  7. What a load of BS.

    Airlines are wildly DEregulated: Amazon has to abide by 50 State consumer regulations, airlines instead only have to follow the the do-nothing DOT. Amazon packages are delivered over government-owned roads and using Interstates that only go where the government put them. Amazon drivers follow trucker safety regulations.

    Airlines are crappy mostly because they don’t have to follow the same rules that Amazon has.

    No, we’re not better off with crappy products and experiences. We have a vast choice of cars, and the most sold one is the Ford F-series and not Yugo. But when it comes to airlines, there’s never more than a handful of choices where/when we want to go, and we can only buy Yugo-type experiences instead of Ford F-Series ones.

  8. I flew in that vintage era. Many 3/4 empty wide body jets. Easy to find a row of empty seats for napping on longer flights. People did wear nice clothes. I don’t remember much about the food; I wasn’t a foodie, then. I never felt like I had to put on a layer of big-city bad neighborhood street-smarts upon embarkation.

    The late 70’s deregulation effectively was a “re-regulation.”

    Yesterday, I flew Delta 1st class, and my breakfast service was about 50% of the vintage pictures. About 10% of my flights approach 50% vintage quality. The rest are, well, you know.

    I recall even in the early 2000’s, in cattle class, a college frat boy showing off to his college intern giggling girl by shouting to the trolley dolley, “this chicken meal is cold!” and sending it back. This was before the tiktok influencer era so this weird passenger/crew interaction did not escalate.

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