The very worst airline meals – grey, reconstituted "cutlets", served with luminous fizzy drinks for which a Geiger counter was more useful than a straw – went out with the old Soviet Union. But even under capitalism, passengers choose airlines on price and convenience, rather than the quality of the inflight cuisine.
So why do the airlines continue to supply meals on long-haul flights? Because we continue to eat them, even though our nutritional needs are negligible. We pick at the food on the tray because it helps nibble away at the journey time.
I cheerfully admit that, towards the end of an overnight flight, I welcome the arrival of the breakfast trolley – not because I want a two-day-old omelette, but because it signals the beginning of the end of the journey.
On shorter flights, free meals are becoming the exception. This week Continental Airlines became the last big US carrier to abandon complimentary meals on domestic flights – following a trend that began in Britain 15 years ago with the birth of easyJet.
The no-frills airlines have done short-haul travellers a favour by removing the "free" food, and the costs that go into providing it. You can use the money saved to buy some fresh, wholesome ingredients to enjoy on the flight (so long as you can get them past the liquids check at security; yoghurt is suspect). Or simply sharpen your appetite for tapas in Barcelona or pasta al pesto in Genoa.
On short flights, catering has become a revenue stream rather than a cost, which provides the one source of optimism. The better the food, the higher the profits. By keeping it fresh and simple, airlines can cash in – as Icelandair demonstrates. Forget the freezer; aboard its Boeings, you can buy a "Bento box" of sushi. Eminently edible, and a credible €10.
Making the mass-produced meals doled out at 30,000 feet is a thankless job. The menu must necessarily cater for the lowest gastronomic denominator – a recipe for blandness.
There is no contact between those who process the food and those who eat it: only in aviation is the distance between chef and consumer measured in thousands of miles. And travellers who dine before the flight – when one's sense of taste is unblunted by altitude and noise – are involuntarily subsidising those who are prepared to make do with mediocrity.