An in-flight meal on board a British Airways flight in 2019

Airline Meals Used to be Plentiful and Luxurious. Here’s What Happened

In an era when airline passengers once savoured gourmet meals at 30,000 feet, today’s travellers are lucky to receive a pack of pretzels on short flights. The evolution of airline dining, from lavish spreads to minimal offerings, reflects a combination of factors, including regulatory changes, industry cost-cutting, and shifting passenger preferences.

Decades ago, flying with American Airlines meant indulging in elaborate dishes like sautéed breast of chicken in wine, served with a fruit tartlet for dessert. However, as airlines faced economic pressures and regulatory shifts, the era of complimentary fine dining in coach class came to an end. Today, meals are either limited to long-haul international flights or replaced with simple snacks on shorter journeys.

The decline in airline dining is multifaceted. Safety regulations post-9/11 altered onboard food preparation methods, while changes in aeroplane design prioritized seating capacity over galley space. Concerns over allergies also led to the exclusion of certain foods like peanuts from inflight offerings, contributing to smaller, less flavorful meals.

Industry executives prioritizing cost-efficiency have played a significant role in shaping today’s inflight dining landscape. Airlines eagerly sought ways to minimize food production costs and streamline meal preparation processes. One notable example is Robert Crandall, the former head of American Airlines, who famously saved thousands by eliminating a single olive from every salad.

Moreover, charging passengers for onboard meals presents financial advantages for airlines, as food purchases are exempt from certain taxes applicable to airfares. Consequently, travellers often find themselves paying extra for sandwiches or snack boxes during flights.

Despite the nostalgia for the golden age of airline dining, the reality for most passengers today is starkly different. While premium-class travellers enjoy gourmet offerings curated by celebrity chefs, those in economy class are left with minimal options or must pay for meals. As airlines continue to adapt to evolving passenger demands and economic pressures, the days of complimentary airline meals for all may remain a relic of the past.

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