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Making a Better Meal—at 36,000 Feet

Airlines use all kinds of tricks for improving the food served in-flight.

Starting on July 1st, United Airlines will begin serving illy coffee aboard all of its flights. Before making the change from its previous supplier, the team at United put an almost shocking amount of work into choosing the brand and readying it for service.

First they conducted in-flight blind taste tests with a number of coffee brands to determine which blends and beans tasted best at high altitude. Then they tested their water tanks for chlorine and other trace chemicals that can affect flavor. And then they had illy educate flight attendants about how to flatten pillow packs of grounds to produce the right flavor and ensure that brewers are at the correct boiling point (which is lower in the air than on the ground). They even tested brew basket types on United’s entire fleet to make sure that water flowed evenly through the grounds.

But coffee isn’t the only item served on board that requires a tremendous amount of attention. We took a look at the problems of preparing food at 36,000 feet—and what airlines are doing about it.

Food tastes different in-flight

Dry air, caused by low humidity in the cabin, not only removes moisture from food but also makes your nose less sensitive. And since smell is a very important part of taste, it’s almost as if your taste buds go slightly numb. Sweet and salty flavors diminish by around a third while bitter and sour foods remain unchanged, so the balance of flavors can seem off. Savory foods perform the best, which is why some things, like tomato juice, are more popular in the air than on the ground.

Airlines cook with a lot of constraints

When planning menus, airlines have to consider everything from cost to constrained galley space, food weight, and the feasibility of procuring items at destinations around the world. Meals are mass-produced in airport catering kitchens, then chilled, refrigerated, and reheated in convection ovens on the plane. This means that chefs must choose recipes that can be easily replicated with ingredients that can withstand the variety of temperatures meals go through before hitting your tray table. These conditions affect various foods differently: Chicken can dry out quickly, beef can get overcooked, and pasta can become soggy.

What do airlines do about it?

Airplane-friendly recipes often include more sauce and spices (and salt!) than similar recipes cooked on the ground so that the food will stay moist and have enough flavor to make up for passengers’ dulled taste buds. Experienced members of the cabin crew also have tricks up their sleeves: When caterers pack plates and coffee mugs in a chilled cart, an experienced crew will heat plates (or at least pull them from the cold carts early) to keep them from affecting the meal’s temperature. They also check the temperature of all dishes on an oven tray (perhaps rotating them) before serving the meal in case some ovens are hotter than others.

And in premium cabins, airlines even consider the height of the standard foil containers that fit into the galley carts. For instance, the famous gourmet burger stacked with triple-cooked fries that British Airways serves in first class is separated into different containers; once the appropriate items are reheated, each burger is constructed carefully in the galley.

Some airlines go above and beyond

Many airlines are getting creative, including hiring celebrity chefs to design menus. Some have chefs prepare meals on the plane (Austrian and Turkish airlines are known for it) or provide specific plating instructions for flight attendants to follow for appetizing presentations.

Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, and Etihad scramble eggs to order in premium classes; Cathay Pacific also has rice cookers and toaster ovens in first class. And British Airways once designed a suggested playlist to pair with meals: tunes with low notes to enhance savory flavors and piano music to pep up sweet and bitter tastes.

Some companies also serve name-brand foods and beverages (like that illy coffee). Delta and Alaska serve Starbucks coffee, and JetBlue serves Dunkin’ Donuts brew. British Airways’ afternoon tea service features a signature blend of Twinings tea prepared just for the airline. Japan Airlines has famously served Kentucky Fried Chicken on many of its U.S.-bound flights, while United serves small-batch vodka and premium Kentucky bourbon from Buffalo Trace (a cocktail with either one could make any airline meal seem tasty). And Finnair even works with Finnish designer Marimekko to serve meals on colorful service ware in both business and economy classes—because an attractive presentation can factor into an eater’s experience of the food, too. 

What can passengers do to improve their experience?

Ordering a special meal, like an airline’s vegetarian or low-sodium option, can improve your experience because those meals are often delivered first and spend less time drying out in the galley or serving cart. And many frequent fliers add their own flavors to meals; I often travel with small bottles of Tabasco and Sriracha sauce.

Ramsey Qubein wings his way to every corner of the globe covering the hotel, cruise, and airline industry, scooping up points and miles along the way. He has visited 164 countries and flies nearly 350,000 miles per year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at DailyTravelTips or on his website RamseyQ.com.