In the 1960s, men were men, the scotch was strong, and airplane food was gourmet. Grilled filet mignon with buttered green peas and croquette potatoes, caviar with eggs and toast, Dover sole stuffed with crabmeat on a puffed pastry, sautéed veal with a brandy cream sauce. This in-flight fare might be making a comeback. Airlines are in fierce competition for first and business class customers—especially after the near collapse of the industry after 9/11 and rising fuel prices. U.S. Airways has spent $2 billion to upgrade service for its first and business class customers, and many competitors are following suit, even employing celebrity chefs to design menus.
Appealing to the traveler’s palate, however, is not an easy gig. Lufthansa recently partnered with the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics to sponsor a scientific investigation into the complexities of airplane food. The study aimed to find out why customers have such an aversion to their tray-table meals. The results were surprising: Lufthansa found that people’s ability to perceive sweetness and saltiness fell up to 30 percent while in conditions similar to an airplane.
“Food tastes differently in-flight than when consumed on the ground. At 35,000 feet the sense of smell is dulled, making subtle flavors nearly impossible to detect,” American Airlines Director of In-flight Dining and Retail Alice Curry told the Independent. This is in part because the air inside of the cabin is so dry and the pressure so low that passengers lose around a third of their ability to taste. The atmosphere inside airplanes is carefully controlled. Environmental control systems keep humidity low inside of aircrafts in order to prevent condensation, which leads to electrical malfunctions and corrosion. On top of that, at high altitudes, air pumped in from the outside has an extremely low humidity and pressure. The change in pressure pushes bodily fluids upward, and they are more easily lost due to the low humidity. Because of this, passengers are thus thirstier and their ablity to smell is hindered, causing some loss of taste. Eating in the air is much like eating with a cold—only strong tastes make it through.
According to Lufthansa, this would explain the popularity of tomato juice and strong wines on flights, beverage choices that, like wearing sweatpants in public and falling asleep on strangers, only make sense in-flight. When on the ground, many travelers shy away from the bold flavors in tomato juice and full-bodied wines, but in the air, these beverages benefit from a reduction in taste perception. Chefs, also, can compensate for their customers’ dulled senses. John Besh, a meal designer for Lufthansa and also a regular on the Food Network and owner and executive chef at Restaurant August in New Orleans, is one of many fine-dining chefs that are expanding their repertoire to include food in the air. In response to diminished taste on planes, Besh told Salon.com “It’s not hard to make up for that. A touch here or there—lighter, citrus, spicy flavors are incredible. You really can still taste them.”
Another recent investigation at the University of Manchester into the nature of the almost universal disdain for airplane food has revealed surprising results that are not as easily solved with an extra lemon squeeze. Researcher Andy Woods found that the loud noise of the engine was detracting from passengers’ ability to taste. Taste and smell are the two most important senses to the perception of flavor. However, there are numerous other factors that contribute to the way people perceive taste including expectations, color of the food, plating, and the environment around the eater. Woods’s research added level of noise to that list. His study showed that at high levels of background sound, people lose some ability to taste.
Woods gave 48 test subjects blindfolds and headphones that were either extremely noisy or silent and asked them to give responses about the level of flavor of a variety of things. Participants with noisy headphones reported much less sweetness and saltiness as well as more dislike for the food than those without headphones. On the other hand, researchers found that the noise did enhance their perception of the food’s crunchiness.
Although higher levels of noise did lower test subjects’ ability to taste, not just any noise did the trick. When test subjects listened to loud music that they enjoyed rather than noise, they reported that the food was actually more enjoyable. Similarly, if they disliked the loud sounds they were hearing, they liked the food less.
Sound levels are, unfortunately, not under the chef’s control. Neither are the limitations of cooking up batches of food that are getting sent all over the world. One of the main obstacles to making good airplane food is the sheer complexity of the logistics that go into getting the food from the ground onto customers’ plates in the air. “Chefs must take into consideration spacing constraints and the ability to heat food in-flight as they design their menus,” Curry explains.
Most airlines use catering services such as Gate Gourmet or LSG Sky Chefs. Airline meals are first prepared cafeteria-style in huge quantities at industrial kitchens hidden away in airports. Hundreds of meals are prepared at once and loaded onto carts, which are then dispatched to airplanes. In the air, meals may be reheated in a convection oven and served up to hungry, if hesitant, passengers. Chef Besh claims that this challenges even the pros: “The real issue is the sheer, vast quantities of food, made in multiple kitchens across the globe, and finding the fish you can buy in 500-ton lots. The food is going to lose a touch of soul in the process.”
Considering the odds stacked against them, airplane menus seem doomed to fail. Still, several airlines have hired celebrity chefs to create menu items for their in-flight meals. American Airlines recently added celebrity chefs Richard Sandoval, winner of numerous culinary awards and executive chef at several prestigious restaurants, and Marcus Samuelsson, winner of Top Chef Masters season 2 and executive chef at the Red Rooster. Other companies hiring celebrity chefs include Singapore Airlines, which hired Gordon Ramsey, United, which hired Charlie Trotter, Delta, which hired Michelle Bernstein, and Air France, which hired Joël Robuchon.
With so many airlines on the brink of failure, these branded chefs add an appeal that sets otherwise similar companies apart. As passengers witness a renewal of airplane luxe in first and business class, haute cuisine seems to be reaching new heights—even up to 35,000 feet. Or maybe those old menus only sound tasty on paper, and 1960s passengers wouldn’t have been able to tell their filet mignon apart from a mostly-beef patty.
LUCAS MORDUCHOWICZ B’14 always wears sweatpants and orders tomato juice.