Nothing we want to eat at 30,000ft

Pie in the sky: top chefs advise British Airways on inflight menus - but wouldn't a fresh sandwich be better?
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Mankind has mastered flight, but falls flat when it comes to serving up decent food in the skies. Surely, given the cost of air travel, it's not unreasonable to expect a small wonder to be presented on the plastic plate. Yet, for the vast majority of travellers, airline food remains lukewarm and unappetising.

Mankind has mastered flight, but falls flat when it comes to serving up decent food in the skies. Surely, given the cost of air travel, it's not unreasonable to expect a small wonder to be presented on the plastic plate. Yet, for the vast majority of travellers, airline food remains lukewarm and unappetising.

Now, at last, there are signs that the problem is being addressed. British Airways recently spent millions of pounds to improve catering, and called on top chefs to re-create the kind of menus usually found in high-class restaurants. Surrey University plans to appoint a professor of airline food, who will lead research into such areas as preparation and supply.

But the airlines have a lot of ground to make up. A recent survey of transatlantic meals by the renowned food critic Egon Ronay found most to be "very poor indeed... an insult to the palate as well as to the intelligence".

But the problem is not necessarily the food itself - according to Christopher Smith, a lecturer in food and beverage management at Surrey University, "the quality of the food used is very high in terms of products, hygiene and safety". Part of it is simple logistics.

In-flight meals have to be prepared hours in advance, chilled to 5C, then re-heated on board. Delays on the runway or turbulence preventing meals being served immediately mean that food sits too long in convection ovens, which dries it out. (Airlines cannot use microwave ovens, which would interfere with navigation systems.)

And, for reasons experts do not yet understand, altitude and cabin pressure numb the palate. Food and drink lose much of their taste at around 35,000ft, which leaves airline caterers struggling to find strong flavours that won't offend: garlic, for instance, is generally taboo.

The consensus from experts is: keep it simple. Several professional chefs said they would be much happier with a fresh, well-prepared sandwich or cold bean salad than a more ambitious but poorly executed meal.

"Don't pretend to have all that chi-chi food, and don't spend money printing menus," says Albert Roux of London's famous Le Gavroche restaurant. "Invest in good bread."

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