I have a love affair with airline food – for all the reasons our readers seem to hate it

The feeling of being strapped into an economy seat, wrapped in a fleece blanket, scraping up an overcooked, carb-leaden meal from its tin foil container is the adult equivalent of being swaddled

Cathy Adams
Travel editor
Tuesday 24 December 2019 10:25 GMT
British Airways passenger shocked by ‘truly pathetic’ inflight vegetarian meal

A few years ago, following yet another tale of woe from a passenger horrified at their “disgusting” inflight breakfast, this newspaper asked me and a bunch of other frequent fliers to submit their horror stories of airline meals. Most responded enthusiastically with tales of over-salted, soggy potatoes and charred meat. After all, terrible airline food is a trope that never disappoints.

Whether it’s a “disgusting” toastie served on a business class flight from Miami, “soggy” bruschetta out of Chicago or “an absolute joke” of a breakfast onboard a flight from Heathrow – we’ve covered them all. You readers can’t get enough.

When asked about his worst-ever meal, our travel correspondent Simon Calder even said that “over the years I have learned that the less hungry I am when boarding a flight, the happier the flight is likely to be”.

In a rare occurrence, I had absolutely nothing to say. I love plane food, said no one ever… except for this hungry travel editor. (Sorry Simon.)

How I love you, little scalding rectangular blister pack of neatly packed meat and carbs. How I ache to hear the click-click of the cabin crew’s trolley being heaved down the aisle and the attendants mutinously offering “chicken or beef?” (Beef. Always beef.) How I long for that cosy, full-belly feeling of having slurped 800 calories of brackish nothingness and wait for somebody to take it all away.

The feeling of being strapped into an economy seat, wrapped in a fleece blanket, scraping up an overcooked meal in a 30-inch space while binging a crap film in semi-darkness is the adult equivalent of being swaddled. Plus, those glorious calories don’t count when you’re sailing 35,000ft above the earth, do they?

It’s why I usually go for the pasta. It’s tongue-lickingly salty, delightfully clumpy and the sauce has that claggy, scraped-from-the-bottom-of-the-pan texture about it that manages to be too oily and too dry at the same time. But that’s what the plastic-wrapped bread roll is for. Put butter indents in it and the bread is suddenly the ideal sauce-mopper-upper.

I get a distinct impression I’m one of the very few people to feel this way. Airlines clearly agree that most passengers hate their plastic trays of carb-laden slop – which is why they bring in celebrity chefs and nutritional experts to “curate” their menus.

Pah. I’ve met plenty of these sorts over the years, at pains to insist their Michelin-translated food is more at home in a restaurant than a plane. But we’re cruising thousands of feet high in the atmosphere, onboard one of the modern world’s most exciting inventions. Can’t I leave my usual eating habits for just a few hours? The air remains the only place where we can shove metal packets of meat and potatoes down our maw without guilt. Don’t take that away from me.

Emirates used to give out stickers to passengers saying “wake me up for food”, designed to put on the entertainment console before flaking out. Embarrassingly, I’ve even requested special meals just so I get my meal ahead of everyone else – the sometimes two-hour wait after take-off to be fed is so interminable when the vegans and gluten-frees and low-salts get to eat their specially-prepared meal before everyone else. (If you’re going to do this, it’s best to order an Indian vegetarian meal in advance. Indian airlines serve generally excellent plane food – turns out it translates really well at 35,000ft.)

Plane food can be novel, too. Flying at Christmas? Expect a foil-wrapped turkey dinner in miniature. Thanksgiving means pumpkin pie and chestnut soup. At Easter, I’ve been handed Easter cake and chocolate eggs. Can any lucky reader please confirm whether free champagne is given out if New Year hits in the time zone you’re flying through?

Air France provides complimentary champagne on all flights, whatever the time of year; Swiss does fondue and alpine milk chocolate. And for the love of the inflight food gods, Virgin Atlantic once came round with a basket of Magnums for passengers down the back. I still remember fondly the days of the British Airways tuck shop in the galley, stuffed with chocolate bars, crisps and nuts – which usually disappeared quicker than Jeremy Corbyn’s general election hopes.

Inch eastwards, and airline food becomes a Very Big Deal. Customers of AirAsia love its inflight meal so much that the budget airline opened up a restaurant, Santan, in Kuala Lumpur, where a third of the dishes served also exist onboard. Naturally, I’m desperate to visit.

OK OK, back to the first question: I must still have had a “worst” inflight dining experience. Back against the wall, it was a trip from Shenzhen to Xian on China Southern a few years ago. Cabin crew charged up and down the aisle chucking foil-wrapped mystery meat burgers at passengers. The meat was greying and cold, the bun fluff stuck to the burger. I had no way of asking what it was.

Still ate it. Still enjoyed it.

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