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From plane awful to first class, is airline food changing?

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Sheila Dillon Sheila Dillon | 13:24 UK time, Monday, 4 October 2010

Airline food


I came to the subject of airline food with a lot of prejudices. These were undermined last month at the Fine Food Fair in Olympia when I tasted some seriously good ice cream from Beckleberry’s, a family-run company in Tyne and Wear. I was astounded to find out from the father and son duo that run the company that they were making ice cream for Virgin Atlantic’s premium economy passengers. 

Around the corner I met Keith Gill, a co-founder of the business that created Phileas Fogg crisps, a brand that helped start the posh crisp phenomenon. The business was sold for squillions (only to have the corporate buyers almost abandon the brand) and Keith and his partner Roger McKechnie set up the Tanfield Food Company. They make high-quality ready meals and soups that don’t need to be refrigerated (ambient foods), made from ingredients sourced from farmers in Northumbria. He too is making mile high food for the budget airlines.

Airline food is changing. No surprise given the recession, the losses that resulted from the volcano-induced shut down, widespread concerns about the environmental effects of flying, and the long backwash of effects from 9/11 that now make getting through an airport so unpleasant.  All those conditions demand cutbacks and food is always frontline there - but that’s not, on the whole, the way things are going at 30,000 feet.  Microwave panini a-go-go are just not going to take off.

  • There’s a small but growing wave of artisan producers being brought into the business. New technology is making supply chains to airline caterers much simpler and more flexible than in the past. 
  • Passengers are a lot more savvy about food and are demanding something decent to eat - even if they have to pay for it. 
  • New businesses are coming into airline catering, giving the long-established giants a run for their money. Earlier this year Northern Foods, with decades of experience producing high-quality ready meals, won BA’s short-haul contract. DHL has also got in on the business - though their cooking skills are perhaps not so well known. 
  • Easyjet and its clones have taught passengers that paying for food might be a better way to eat in the air if you’re travelling economy. Business and first class are a different proposition as airline catering specialist Ian Rutter told us on The Food Programme. Even the classy airlines are probably only spending a pound on the entire economy meal - that’s the same budget a prison caterer would get per prisoner. 
  • Waste has become a big issue in airline catering; better quality means less to chuck out. 

However the classiest meal I have ever had on an aeroplane was in the economy section of Air New Zealand in the 70s flying from Auckland to LA: one huge game pie was brought out on a trolley and each passenger was offered a slice. It was wonderful. Why can’t we have more of that? A great cheddar, some chutney and a tasty bread roll?  Cumbrian ham, mustard and bread…

Have you had a first class food experience lately or have you been served-up something plane awful in economy?

Sheila Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.


  • Comment number 1.

    That game pie sounds wonderful, I would certainly agree that would be the sort of food I would like when flying. The reference to the same amount being spent per passenger is the same as per prisoner could have been taken advantage of as once you are onboard a plane and flying you are a prisoner for the duration of the flight. (laugh)

  • Comment number 2.

    Steamed chinese food almost works as well on an aeroplane, I think. I flew Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong once, and the food was *gorgeous*.

  • Comment number 3.

    On a package holiday flight to Menorca this summer we were served hot food which was quite unpleasant and really difficult to eat. Very fiddly with too much packaging and plastic cutlery in such a confined space. I always wonder why they don't just offer a pack of mixed sandwiches and fruit!

  • Comment number 4.

    I don't think the flying "experience" of the 70s and 80s can be compared to today. Well, it can obviously!... but it's a different world and I think it's close to an apples and oranges comparison. One big change is fewer state-subsidised national airlines and another is the increased competition and alliances.

    I used to do a lot of international travel. Working for the airline industry, I flew most places business or even first-class. The food served, particularly on mid / long haul flights, was usually high end adequate and sometimes really good. The wines available matched the food well and were good quality. But when the ticket cost £2500 for 6 or 7 hours in the air, so it should be. Then 10 years ago I changed industries, started to fly economy and the Ryanairs and Easyjets with their low prices were becoming popular. It's a whole different style - and cost - of travel. Customer expectations are – and need to be – different, particularly for short-haul.

    These no frills airlines are flying buses. They provide a seat to get one from A to B at a minimum cost. Food isn't part of the "experience". In fact, flying is less and less an experience to be savoured so why should we expect the food to be? It's a throwback to a different age of travel when flying was a highly anticipated part of the journey rather than an endurance test – and that’s on the ground before even boarding a plane.

    If I want to eat well on one of these flights, I take my own food. Or if the flight is long enough, I would order a vegetarian or “kosher” option in advance. But when it comes down to it, I don't want to pay a premium to an airline for mediocre food. I want the airline to deliver me safely, comfortably and economically to my destination. For food, I agree with cooksalot - keep it simple. I'd be happy to be offered a selection of M&S sandwiches and some fruit - preferably at cost or at a reasonable markup. I’m not going to starve if I don’t have at least one three course "meal” during a comparatively short (say less than 8 hours) flight.

  • Comment number 5.

    The most interesting meal I've had on a plane was on the way to Israel - trying to eat chicken on the bone, in gravey from a small tray, with a plastic knife and fork, on a table which had a big gap on the other side do you had to make sure you didn't push it too hard so it fell off the side, wasn't so great. You want relatively simple food on a plane, you don't want to have to mess around with it. Just some sandwiches or something savoury like a sausage roll with salad would be fine - M&S should definately expand their range into airline food, that'd be great :)

  • Comment number 6.

    I have a bit of an issue with Singapore Airlines, who interpreted vegetarian as 'no sugar' when I flew with them from Singapore to Manchester on a flight which covered breakfast, and my sister's (non-veggie) breakfast came with a mini muffin and mine did not. Considering they had about eight different options for vegetarians/vegans I wasn't impressed.

    I always take my own food on budget airlines, or eat beforehand - most of those flights don't last long enough for you to need food anyway.

  • Comment number 7.

    I can't eat wheat - or rather if I do then none of the other passengers would get access to the loo. So sandwiches, and most puds, are off the menu for me. As I am allergic to fish - including the smell - airline food is a form of russian roullete for me.

    On short haul I eat in a decent franchise - usually the most expensive at the airport - so I am properly stoked up for the journey. Long haul is a nightmare. If I try to bring my own the offered meal will be OK. If I don't then it will be awful. And that is even before you get onto the subject of overcooked beef, American food being disgustingly sweet...

    How about a system where we have a caterer of choice, pay for it and have it heated and served to us on the plane?

    And no wretched sandwiches! Especially the one where the contents are a chopped mess in an oversweet american style mayonnaise. Then you can't even find something edible in the middle of the bread. (BA - are you listening?)

  • Comment number 8.

    New meaning to the phrase PLANE AWFUL - my partner and I flew TAP to Lisbon and were treated to a warm breaded chicken with ham. Sounds nice?
    Well I have the photographs if anyone is interested. It gave me severe indigestion for my first night in Lisbon. A week later on the return leg we were treated to the same awful chicken sandwich with the addition of a single spinach leaf! - I passed this time round & had gaviscon on hand for any travellers on board. They'd be better off saving the money and handing out bags of peanuts...

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi fellow travellers, I'm an aviation journalist who is going to the gate gourmet kitchens at Heathrow on Friday for a tour and will be writing up the feature on TERMINAL U - an air travel consumer site. I would love to hear from you about your best and worst meals on flights - and photos too would be welcomed, which I can publish on the site. "MME" - your pics of that nasty dish on TAP would be great! Many thanks, Louise. P.S to get in touch, go to and contact me through the help desk.

  • Comment number 10.

    I fly twice a year Manchester - Auckland and have no hesitation in praising Singapore Airlines food. Always interesting with good choices. I usually fly economy but even in business there is not a huge difference. On the odd occasion when my choice has run out, attendants have usually found me something from the business class galley. In between meals there are always sandwiches and snacks available. Like many aspects of SA the food is well thought-out and always changing.


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