Why Food Tastes Bad on Planes, and How to Fix That

Airport restaurants are generally bad for a variety of reasons that conspire to deprive your taste buds of anything worth consuming.

  • Airport space is at a huge premium, you can store very little. Knives are usually chained to the wall, and inventoried between shifts. You can’t just bring supplies down the airport corridors when you need them. Items need to clear security. It’s often a third party that’s engaged to do that, and it has to happen at off hours. Working with the third party can make sourcing ingredients challenging.

  • Customers have varied tastes and need to be served quickly. Despite the high rents and challenging operating environment airports often require ‘street pricing’ (charge the same in the airport, perhaps plus 10%, versus what same item would cost on the outside). And it’s not even the restaurant that’s managing the operation, usually they are licensing the concept. For example there are only two vendors offering food serving in the Phoenix airport, despite all the different restaurant names.

And consumers are pretty captive, security won’t let you bring many food items into the airport. But things get even worse once you’re up in the air.

Our senses are dulled by:

  • Cabin pressurization
  • Low humidity
  • Noise

This cool new Cheddar video goes through the history of inflight meals and some of its challenges. And by the way, coffee is miserable on a plane and many wines don’t work either. For at least 9 years I’ve been recommending tomato juice as an onboard drink, with the added benefit that it’s an excellent source of vitamin C and vodka.

Bear in mind that not all airline food is bad. Etihad has long done a nice salmon biryani, for instance. Some meals present well inflight, with good ingredients and care in preparation.

There’s no question that fresh cooked rice in Cathay Pacific first class makes a difference, and so do freshly cooked eggs — in contrast to the way the executive chef for American Airlines explained his “trick” to offering international first class reheated eggs by preparing them initially with cream cheese.

Often the best inflight meals are soups. That’s something tough to mess up in a galley. They can be heavily seasoned to counteract the taste bud-dulling affects of cabin pressurization, and they just need to be heated.

While the very best soups I’ve had inflight have been on Asian airlines, even United Airlines has done a really good job with their Polaris soups.

Thai Airways Duck Rice Soup

Singapore Airlines Laksa

ANA Ramen

A good meal does start with the investment – not just in the ingredients, but also in the onboard equipment and the training of flight attendants who will heat and plate the meal. It also starts with recognizing what’s possible to deliver in a cabin environment, both in terms of transport and reheating and also flavor profiles that stand up at altitude.

That said, outside of a good soup, there’s rarely going to be a meal that you’d have in the air that you’d be equally happy with on the ground. Most airlines though shouldn’t stray too far from just “a good soup.”

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Soups on the ground are so heavily salted as is (well over 100% DV sodium) I’d be very concerned about what’s in the air

  2. When I can I pre-order the hindu meal, which often is surry and invariably has bolder flavors.

  3. Curries and anything properly cooked with a braise (wet heat) are good bets to not be a disaster, like pot roast.

  4. So long as they use the right cut of meat, a braised dish often works well. For years, American had a “Yankee Pot Roast” main course in International First Class, but, inexplicably, used filet mignon as the meat. Even on the ground, you cannot braise a filet mignon. When reheated in the air, it was inevitably a disaster. Chicken thighs work well, as do short ribs.

  5. I feel youve missed out an important point here. Namely, tweaking the recipes to make sure they taste good at high altitude.
    IIRC SQ has a testing facility where all dishes are tasted at the pressure and humidity levels that one achieves in flight.
    PS : Do let me know which tomato juice I can use as a source of vodka! Its better than turning water into wine!

  6. So to maximize culinary enjoyment in flight, the simple fix is to fly on787s or second choice A350s, which are the airliners with the highest cabin pressurization and humidity.

  7. Alpha carnivores insist on choosing red meat dishes on planes, even knowing that they are likely to be disappointed . It’s often the same crowd insisting on a caviar course , consumed with great relish while swilling champagne. IE, more money than good taste ( “Ma and Pa Kettle win the lottery”).

  8. I used to work in the wine business and airplane wine strategy was actually a pretty fascinating process. Most major airlines employ master sommeliers to pick the best wines to taste 35,000 feet in the air. The wines that worked best were younger and fruit forward, not too acidic or tannic. Many times I had a wine on the plane that tasted great, only to be disappointed at sea level when the same wine tasted too fruity or flabby. It gets tricky when airlines want to feature “status” wines like many top line Bordeaux or Burgundies. They just aren’t made to taste good up in the air. In some cases well known wineries will produce wines specially for airlines (there is a lot of money to be made there). You may never know from the label–you won’t see “MADE FOR THE AIRPLANE” and you may think you’ve had an identical wine on the ground. Often times, you have not…

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