Airplane Food: How it Works

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Airlines don’t cook the foods they serve on the plane. They use catering services. Cooking enough food for hundreds or thousands of people to eat the same thing at the same time is complicated, and airlines have enough complicated stuff to worry about. That’s why the airlines (just like colleges, schools, businesses, and weddings) all use catering services. So, when you think about it, it’s natural they get another company to help them cook the food. 

The airline catering services industry is worth $6 billion in the United States, but most people don’t know how it all works. Vox Media wrote an article on this, and the writer said how difficult it was to find information online about this. However, this article talks about the airplane food catering industry, how the airlines decide which foods to cook, how airplane food has changed over time, and the safety of airplane food.


Wow, this is airplane food in the 1950s…. Things have really changed!!!

Getting Worse or... Getting Gheaper?

Over the years, airplane food has become cheaper and lower quality. One big change came after September 11, 2001. After that, the U.S. airlines lost a lot of money. They had to start cutting costs and one place they could do that was in the food. Many airline companies stopped giving free food.

Another change came in 2008/2009 when the U.S. housing market crashed. Within the past 10 years, airlines have also started to unbundle their services, meaning that people can choose to pay for certain things that used to be all-included, like snacks, alcohol, or a checked bag. If you want anything more than what’s given to you, it’ll likely cost more money.


However, costs still seem to be getting lower.. You can fly from China to Los Angeles roundtrip (roundtrip means there and back) for as low as €560 sometimes. So if we can fly around the world at that low of a price, so what if the food is bad?!?


Interesting Fact: According to the travel blog The Points Guy, an economy-class meal costs an airline about $4, and a business-class meal ranges from $25 to $30. First-class meals can cost close to $100.

How the Menu Gets Made

In the article by Vox, they say some of the airlines hire a team of chefs to make several menus, which change by place, seat class, and season. This means that when you fly from say Los Angeles to New York City, the Los Angeles caterer cooks one kind of meal, and then when you leave New York City, they will give you a different meal as well. Then 6 months later when you fly again, you will eat something different because the seasons (and also meals) have changed.

Another thing that changes the menu is that at 35,000 feet in the air, people can’t taste sodium (salt) as easily. “That’s one of the challenges… People lose about 30 percent or even more of their taste for salt,” said Girardoni of American Airlines in an interview with Vox. “We don’t try to add salt since it [makes people thirsty], but instead add more flavor into our meals.”

Is Airplane Food Safe?

If people were getting sick and dying from airline food, there would be a big, big problem and the airlines would get in big trouble. The food is basically safe and you shouldn’t be afraid to eat on airplane, but there are some problems.

There have been cases of food poisoning, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave nearly 1,500 food safety citations to the three major U.S. airline caterers (Gate Group, Flying Food Group, LSG Sky Chefs) and 16 airlines since October 2008, according to an NBC News investigation. Also, the FDA says catering groups only need be checked every three to five years.

Water is another issue. Drinking water on a flight can be from bottles, or from a tank inside the airplane… Drinks like coffee and tea are often made with water from a tank. Airlines only have to clean the tank every 6 months! Now, these tanks only hold water, and if the water gets heated to make the coffee or tea, it should kill anything in the water.. But this still might make some people nervous. There have been some reports of people getting sick, but the chances are very very low. 


…Also, it is important to remember that ANY food you ever buy has some chance of being unsafe. When you fly, don’t worry too much about the food, you will probably be fine.