Oct 21, 2010

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Is airline food underwhelming and overpriced?

We want to know your thoughts on the quality and price of airline food. Please vote in our poll on the right and leave a comment to let us know your opinions.

This week a study came out that showed background noise can potentially affect the perceived flavour intensity and crunchiness of foods. This has subsequently been cited as a potential reason why airline food generally tastes so uniformly bad (most of the news stories have used the word ‘bland’ but I’m reading between the lines here).

Scientists sat down volunteers, blindfolded them and played them white noise at varying volumes as they ate a selection of foods. Participants then rated the foods on their sweetness, saltiness, crunchiness and overall flavour. The findings seemed to show that as the volume of the noise increased, the reported sweetness and saltiness of the food was dramatically reduced, but the perceived crunchiness increased.

So if you’ve ever had an in-flight meal that has been less than flavoursome, it’s not entirely the airlines fault. Although I can’t help thinking that many airlines don’t help themselves with their presentation. With a quick search on the internet I was able to find this selection of on-board culinary delights:

Some sort of curry?

Some sort of curry?

A rather anaemic looking sausage

A rather anaemic looking sausage chicken combo

Tri-colour curry?

Tri-colour curry?

I'm dubbing this meal - lemon zesty noodles

I'm dubbing this meal - lemon zesty noodles

I think thats mashed potato on the right but I'm not sure what else this meal comprises

I think thats mashed potato on the right but I'm not sure what else this meal comprises

Obviously this is a biased selection and is not representative of all airline meals but this is what could be presented to you as dinner – and these meals are certainly not very appetising to say the least!

Speaking of appetising, a colleague of mine recently reported that while consuming his in-flight meal on a KLM flight from Tanzania to Amsterdam, he took a large bite of his Spaghetti Bolognese and after a few puzzled chews, removed from his mouth a large piece of plastic. Yummmm. The story has a happy ending however as when he complained and pointed out the plastic to the cabin crew, apologies were made and compensation of a little miniature cottage was offered:

The minature cottage offered by way of compensation by KLM

The minature cottage offered by way of compensation by KLM

Personally, I’ve never really had a problem with the quality of airline meals because I’ve always had low expectations, so I’m never really disappointed. I’m realistic and do not expect my carrier to knock me up a meal of Fois Gras, truffle shavings and quails eggs, cooked to the exacting standards of Heston Blumenthal. I expect a small portion of chicken with a mysterious but not unpleasant sauce, a slightly stale roll and some gelatinous gloop for afters. So the airlines usually deliver.

If you want to avoid the in-flight meal, you can always purchase snacks onboard such as sandwiches, crisps, chocolate bars and soup. With this option you may be saving your taste buds but you’re probably doing some damage to your wallet. We recently conducted some research to look into the mark-up airlines place on in-flight food and drink products compared with the price you’d pay in the supermarket and a sample of the findings are shown below:


As you can see, many of the mark-ups are comfortably over 100%. And the highest mark-up we found was on cup-a-soup which was marked up by over 1’000% compared to the supermarket price!!

So what can you do? Well the best solution for me is to bring your own food from home. There are no restrictions on taking food through security, although if you try and carry on a full roast chicken I imagine you would receive some odd looks and it would probably have to pass through the x-ray scanner!  Liquids over 100ml are not allowed to pass though security so you should buy drinks in the departures lounge rather than onboard to save a few more bob. I’m flying to Prague in two weeks time and I’m definitely going to be knocking up a few ham sandwiches and bringing a multipack of Walkers Crisps (Worcester Sauce flavour – they’re the best) for the journey.

So what do you think? What is your opinion of the general quality of airline meals? Do they come in for a hard time un-justifiably or is the bashing deserved? Have you ever had an oustanding airline meal or a truly terrible one? Vote in our poll on the right and leave a comment to let us know your thoughts.


Images on this page are used under the creative commons licence and sourced from Flickr. Respective authors are:

* Best airport prices sourced from Boots, WHSmiths and Whistle Stop at Manchester, Gatwick and Heathrow airports; supermarket prices source from Asda and mysupermarket.com; airlines compared were flybe, Thomson, Thomas Cook, Ryanair, easyJet, Monarch, bmibaby, Jet2

** Passengers are not allowed to consume their own alcohol onboard

*** Ryanair prices calculated at an exchange rate of €1.14 to £1

**** Tea – £2.10 on board vs. 89p at McDonalds/£1.29 Starbucks airside or a unit price of 5p a cup on the high street (including tea bag, two milk and two sugar sachets) – you just need the hot water plus a cup, although we tested easyJet and bmi and they gave us hot water on request – albeit grudgingly.  You could buy a pack of 240 PG Tips – the brand most used on board for £3.00 when we checked our prices. That would make 240 cups minimum and if you are tight you could squeeze two cups per bag!

***** Coffee – £2.13 on board vs. £1.45 at McDonalds/£2.05 Starbucks airside or a unit price of 13p a cup on the high street (including coffee granules, two milk and two sugar sachets_ – hot water rule applies again plus your cup.  You could buy a 200g jar of Kenco for £4.88, again the brand most used on board, enough to make 49 cups of medium strong coffee

  1. Great article – I think the best word to sum up airline food is ‘sweaty’ having been suffocated in plastic containers for hours at 30,000ft! In fact, the food seems to get ‘sweatier’ the longer the flights. I’d definitely take sandwiches if I was flying to Australia! I do feel the provision of stainless steel cutlery makes one feel a little more classy simultaneously helping you saw through that rubbery chicken breast.

  2. Airline food is definitely hit and miss.

    I had three great meals on my recent flight to South America with BA and Lan Chile, although I have to admit they were in business class.

    However you cannot beat an airline breakfast. I know it’s loaded with fat and additives to help the taste, but when you have checked in at some ungodly hour and the smell from the on board ovens hits you, I just cannot resist the bacon, sausage, egg, tomato and mushrooms from the airline trolley. Even if I have to pay for it. Monarch does a good breakfast including hot drink, juice, fruit and roll as well. Yum.

    As for those trolleys selling sandwiches, drinks et al, they are a rip off. Overpriced and poor selection, nothing that can be descirbed as healthy. I always take my own food with me if I am travelling low cost, something fresh and tasty from home like a salad and ftruit and then I buy my drink at the airport as it is cheaper and there is more choice.

    But present me with a free offering on a tray, whatever the class and I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. All those intriguing looking boxes and packets, everything smaller than in real life. I even eye up people next to me to see if they are leaving their roll, or crackers and cheese or chocolate. Then ask if I can have it.

    I really should get out more eh!

  3. Flew with Thompson Airways recently and paid for meals, actually was really impressed. Feel since they’ve started charging extra for food they’ve made more of an effort with the quality and I enjoyed the meal on each flight.

  4. As a veggie I think I tend to do slightly better than my meat eating companions, however the word ‘bland’ does ring true in most cases. The best meal I had was on Qatar Airways. They’d forgotten to collect a veggie meal for me so brought me some freshly cut fruit and a few other bits. Much nicer that the steamed, foil wrapped stuff!

  5. @Amy, glad to hear you enjoyed your meal – Thomson must have a high calibre of chef! According to the scientific study it would have tasted even better had you not been in the noisy confines of the plane.

  6. This experiment should have been carried out on Singapore Airlines, Air India or Thai. No bland food on those flights if you choose an Indian or SE Asian meal.

    On US airlines, the food is bland because there isn’t any spice in it. Take your own spicy meal on board and see whether it has gone bland at 30,000 feet.

  7. Harry Lawrance says:

    @Ash – thanks for your comment. I agree that it would be interesting to see what meals were tested. I wonder if the airlines would be tempted to increase the levels of spices in food to compensate for this effect?

    I’ve also wondered for a while now whether airlines purposely over-season their food to increase the sales of on-board drinks?

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