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
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
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.”