In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a lengthy scene-setting sequence is devoted to scientist Heywood Floyd’s transit to the moon, where he has a date with a mysterious alien monolith discovered at Clavius crater.
The space race was at the time coming to its heady peak, with Neil Armstrong then in training for his landmark lunar mission aboard Apollo 11. To convey that mankind by 2001 would have moved on from such high-stakes adventures, Kubrick entrusts Floyd to a more prosaic carrier: Pan American Airways. As the Pan Am Aries 1B cruises through space, Dr Floyd is fussed over by two stewardesses who negotiate the zero gravity environment in shoes designed to grip the floor. ‘We see that space has been conquered,’ observed reviewer Joseph Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal. ‘We also see it has been commercialised and, within the limits of man’s tiny power, domesticated.’
It is an undemanding, nearly lighthearted section of a movie that grows ever more sombre and mystical, and over one particular item Kubrick dwells with special enchantment: the customised food tray, a straw jutting from each self-contained Liquipak, each promising a taste of fish, carrots, peas, corn, coffee and so on. The rigmarole of fetching the tray from an electronic dispenser is lovingly documented, the hostess appearing to walk up the wall and round the ceiling—an effect created by a rotating set. The novelty of letting the tray go so it drifts in midair is the subject of a sight gag—an illusion achieved with subtle wiring. Another broad joke has Floyd poring over minute print outside the zero gravity toilet (‘Read instructions carefully’).
These are not merely the fruits of the imagination of the great auteur, who, ironically, was himself profoundly averse to flying. Pan Am was one of a number of aerospace concerns that shared their futurological speculations with Kubrick during his research for 2001, and far happier with the outcome than IBM, which withdrew permission to use their name when the HAL 9000 became the villain of the film’s second half. The message was that there was no need to fear the future: while many things might change, airline food would be there awaiting us, meeting abiding human needs, served by comely uniformed maidens in instantly recognisable roles.
By the year 2001, the movie’s prophecies had gone the way of most. Routine lunar shuttling and nuclear-powered spaceflight had not eventuated; high art aliens were nowhere in sight; Pan Am was defunct and Kubrick dead. But airline food had an identity as robust as ever, served with weightless and automatic smiles by what were now called flight attendants. It was still in the movies too: James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) ordered his signature martini in first class on British Airways in Die Another Day (2001), and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) commented with asperity on his inflight meal in Hannibal (2001): ‘It’s not even food, as I understand the definition. Which is why I always travel with my own.’And while airline food might never have made it into space, it is as of today a highly successful $40 billion global industry, churning out more than a million meals a day—a miraculous ‘sliver of modern capitalism’ that is also emblematic of the economic system’s predicament, as columnist Chris Berg put it recently, inasmuch as it works so well that we pay it no attention ‘unless we’re complaining about it’. Because the assumed tastelessness and tediousness of airline food is also, as surely nobody is unaware, a vein of humour mined almost to exhaustion.
To sum up, technology historian Guillaume de Syon has called airline food an ‘essential ritual of flying’ that ‘passengers expect and even welcome’ while also being resigned to disappointment. They keep serving it, we keep poking at it, all at 30,000 feet. But what might it teach us about our changing relationships with food, and with flying?
Airline food hides in plain sight—for something so ubiquitous, its literature is thin. Books about airlines tend to be about planes, routes, bold entrepreneurs, nerveless pilots; they are about flying, rather than being flown, or the quotidian experience of flight in the passenger cabin. Books about food tend to be about … well, food.1
If there were an authoritative history of airline food, it would begin a century ago, when flight was the prerogative of monied elites, and the cuisine reflected it. The first victuals carried aloft by commercial aviators, for the delectation of twenty-three journalists on the June 1910 maiden flight of the zeppelin Deutschland, were caviar and champagne. How much was consumed is unknown, although it probably wasn’t much, as the Deutschland went down in a gale over the Teutoberger Forest, fortunately without loss of life. But in its four years running pleasure flights between large towns and resorts in Germany, the Deutsche Luftschifffahrts-Aktien-Gesellschaft (German Airship Transportation Company) strove for the maximum opulence. A menu from the Deutschland’s sister ship Schwaben offers caviar, lobster, capon and Westphalian ham, washed down with Rhine wine and champagne, cognac from 1842 and ‘sherry pale very old’.
Service standards on airships remained high. Fare grew a little plainer as journeys lengthened: a luncheon menu from the Graf Zeppelin preserved at the Paris Aerospace Museum promises honeydew melon au citron, goulash, asparagus vinaigrette and eclairs. But the settings grew more splendid: in the 75-square-metre, ten-table dining room of the Hindenburg, passengers ate their fattened duckling and venison cutlets off blue and white chinawear with silver cutlery while a pianist played a superlight aluminium baby grand covered in yellow pigskin; they then adjourned to a pressurised smoking room accessed through an airlock where they could also sip a signature cocktail, the Maybach 12, named for the craft’s mighty engines. Weight was of the essence on lighter-than-air craft, but food was never stinted on: on its ten transatlantic journeys, the Hindenburg stowed two and a quarter tons of produce in three store rooms next to a galley staffed by a chef and five assistants.
Operators of heavier-than-air craft were initially far less ambitious. In October 1919 the Aeroplane reported what appears to have been the first offer of inflight refreshments on fixed-wing aircraft: three luncheon ‘baskets’ containing ‘six sandwiches and fruit and chocolate’ on twin-engined Handley Page O/7s being flown between London, Brussels and Paris. Refreshment was scarcely necessary on flights seldom longer than two hours, and barely even feasible: in flimsy, unpressurised, unheated compartments, passengers assailed by cold, noise, smell and vibration were less likely to eat than to do the opposite. The intention instead was to introduce a degree of normality to conditions, like the custom of appropriating terms familiar from sea transportation such as crew, cabin and (air)liner. In 1922 Daimler Airways introduced ‘cabin boys’ to perform tasks like distributing blankets and hot water bottles to passengers; in 1927 Imperial Airways recruited ‘stewards’ and ‘pursers’ for the Armstrong Argosies on its London–Paris ‘Silver Wing’ flights—aviation’s first ‘branded’ route. It was not the same as dining at the captain’s table on the Queen Mary or the United States when Imperial, France’s Air Union and Germany’s Luft Hansa all began offering rudimentary hot meals in the second half of the decade—for one thing, the food was cooked on the ground, preparatory to sealing in thermos flasks, vacuum bottles and ice chests. But the intention was not dissimilar: to invest flight with an aura of calm, comfort and safety—plus just a hint of indulgence.
In Europe, inflight comfort was taken to new levels by Imperial Airways, precursor to BOAC. In 1931 Imperial introduced the Handley Page 42, with its distinctive corrugated aluminium fuselage, four wing-mounted engines, and a roomy galley separating twin cabins for thirty-eight passengers sharing full-course dinners on fixed tables facing fore and aft—an attempt to re-create the amenity of a first-class railway carriage and the ambience of a London club. Four years later, Imperial commenced flying boat services to Australia lavish in their splendour: one surviving menu promises pâté de foie gras; roast chicken, ox tongue and York ham with Russian or green salad; peaches and sauce melba with golden figs; Cheshire cheese or camembert, with ‘Toast Imperial’ and ‘Airway Cocktail’. Qantas followed this example when it commenced its own flying boat service in March 1938 with a chief steward from Imperial, and a menu to match.
Here is a genuine hotel breakfast menu—grapefruit, followed by a choice of two cereals. Poached eggs and grilled bacon. Brown and white bread rolls with tea, coffee and cocoa. And the whole wonder is that it is hot—piping hot.
Would madam prefer roast mutton with peas and crème potatoes? Or would she prefer ham or pressed beef or ox tongue with vegetable or green salad? Then perhaps you may be tempted with pêche melba or cherry flan, and cheese and fruit before your coffee.
Nothing like the same instincts were at work in the United States, where government subsidies made mail more attractive than passengers. Not until 1928 did an American operator try operating a passenger-only service with superior inflight trimmings, and then only as an experiment with financial support from the Guggenheim Foundation for the Promotion of Aeronautics. Western Airways Fokker Trimotors flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco had cabins lined with mahogany and laid with light pile carpet, in which were served juicy thick-cut sandwiches prepared at the glamorous Hollywood diner the Pig’n’Whistle. Universal Air Fokker Trimotors marketed as ‘Sky Diners’ on routes between Chicago and Minneapolis-St Paul serving such delicacies as ‘Under the Wings Chicken à la King’ and ‘Aviator Fruit Cocktail’ were similar in intent. Both ventures ended the same way too: in failure.
Airlines built their initial niches instead by the fast, the frequent and the punctual. Eastern Air Lines launched the first successful trunk route from New York to Miami in 1932 not with the offer of an airborne banquet but with a promise to convey passengers ‘From Frost to Flowers in Fourteen Hours’. Meals were eaten on the ground at landing strip lay-bys: the flight stopped at Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Richmond, where lunch was served; then Raleigh, Florence, Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville, where dinner was served; an additional call was paid at Daytona Beach before the last destination.
The chief American inflight innovation lay not in what was served but in who served it. In May 1930, Ellen Church, a 25-year-old nurse from Cresco, Iowa, bitten by the flying bug, wrote to Boeing Air Transport, a precursor of today’s United, seeking the job of pilot. Flight was still thought rather too racy and unpredictable a field for women, but Church astutely turned this on its head with a couple of questions: ‘Don’t you think it would be better psychology to have women in the air? How is a man going to say that he’s afraid to fly when a woman is working on the plane?’ On a hunch, Boeing hired Church as a ‘stewardess’, making her the template for seven others: all were registered nurses, none were older than twenty-five, heavier than fifty-two kilograms or taller than 162 centimetres. Their duties were varied, extending to hauling luggage on board and refuelling the aircraft, but the accent of their employment fell on the tone they brought to flying. ‘Remember at all times to maintain the respectful reserve of a well-trained servant,’ their handbook laid down. ‘A ready smile is essential. Wind the altimeters in the cabin, sweep out the plane and dust the windowsills, swat flies in the cabin and warn passengers against throwing lighted cigar butts out of the windows. Passengers who wish to remove their shoes should be assisted and the shoes cleaned by the hostess before returning them.’ Nor should the help that stewardesses offered to a fledgling industry of marginal profitability be overlooked: young women were cheap, willing and eager to serve. After the hiring of the first stewardesses, bookings at Boeing Air Transport are said to have grown by 30 per cent. No food in the world could have done that.When civil aviation resumed after the Second World War, it was still unclear which version would prevail: fewer paying more or more paying less. At first there was simply excitement at the possibilities of smoother sailing at higher altitudes over longer ranges offered by new pressurised airliners, such as the Boeing 307 and the Lockheed Constellation. But other changes were afoot. In March 1946 Pan Am, which the ravages of war had left as the market leader among international airlines, foreshadowed a new system of food handling, which would make cumbersome thermoses and flasks a thing of the past. During the war, William Maxson, a former naval officer turned inventor, had built a modest business selling three-part frozen meals to his old service; now Pan Am adopted the Maxson Food System for its new Constellation ‘Clippers’, with meals cooked on a partitioned plate, flash frozen at 20 degrees below zero, then stored in a pre-chilled balsa box before reheating in two on-board electric ovens run off 24-volt DC motors. Pan Am suddenly began offering passengers, including Americans who hitherto had seldom done much better than sandwiches, such menus as these:
Half Grapefruit Maraschino
Celery & Olives
Sirloin Steak with Sauce
Baby Lima Beans
Hearts of Lettuce with Russian Dressing
Easily handled, mass-produced, mass-appeal meals were a precondition of the other signal development for which Pan Am was responsible: the offer of lower fares. In September 1948 Pan Am separated some of its Constellations into ‘President’ seating and ‘Rainbow’ seating—the antecedents of first/business and economy/tourist/coach classes. For airlines were gradually twigging that they could no longer rely solely on the wealthy and the privileged—something a correspondent in the Aeroplane in January 1950 explained in food terms: ‘The sooner air transport grows out of the salmon and champagne era and gets down to kipper and tea traffic the sooner it will justify its existence,’ he wrote, helpfully defining ‘kipper and tea’ as meaning ‘packing as many paying customers as decently possible into one’s aeroplane’. So it was that air travel in the next two decades came within the reach of almost everyone, especially in the United States, which historian Daniel Boorstin noted was ‘the first nation in history so many of whose citizens could go so far simply in quest of fun and culture’.
Airline food helped shape and was shaped by this gradual democratising of commercial aviation. Mass air transit calls for simple meals to suit the widest possible tastes that can be eaten with elbows tucked in, tasted in rarified atmospheres and digested in confined quarters. It is a dining genre ruled by iron laws of economics unheard of in restaurants with their 200–300 per cent mark-ups; when cost is paramount, portion control is king. If it is dismaying to look down a row of seats and watch everyone chowing down on the same thing, you are also observing the workings of a very specific political economy.
These developments set airlines a distinct commercial challenge: how to distinguish themselves in an environment of growing homogenisation. Along with its exclusivity, flying was losing its cachet and romance: how could one prevent it growing completely mundane, its providers indistinguishable and its customers indifferent? The answer was no single thing, but perhaps an accumulation of many, with one being the quality, the attentiveness and, frankly, the attractiveness of inflight staff.
In the 1950s and 1960s the comely, worldly air hostess was an alluring figure, part geisha, part mother, all at once glamourising and civilising the clouds, and beloved by popular culture.2 ‘You know, an aeroplane is more than just a piece of metal,’ gushes perky Marcy Lewis (Jane Wyman) in the rom-com Three Guys Named Mike (1951). ‘It’s like a home in the air.’ A middle American small town girl, Marcy is so euphoric on her first flight that she forgets the box lunches and needs the plane to turn back for them—a none-too-subtle reminder that she’s there to care for others rather than enjoy a career of her own. Inevitably, too, when all the plots and subplots are played out, her successful suitor is a home town boy, redomestication drawing her adventures to a close. But between times there is plenty of fun and frolic, not to mention advertising of American Airlines, which astutely provided aircraft and other sets free of charge.
Soon after, American made Marcy’s career trajectory semi-official by announcing that it would ground unmarried stewardesses at thirty-two, based on the assumption that women any older were unable to meet the job’s ‘established qualifications’ of ‘attractive appearance, pleasant disposition, even temperament, neatness, unmarried status and the ability and desire to meet and serve passengers’: by the time such stipulations were struck down by Type VII of the CivilRights Act more than a decade later, almost two-thirds of American airlines would have them. This was, by some measures, the ‘golden age of the air stewardess’, to use the subtitle of a history of the British variant, Libbie Escolme-Schmidt’s Glamour in the Skies (2009). In their own way, though, they were just another thing to be consumed: an aesthetic extra, a fantasy bonus.
That applied not least in Australia, where the basic homogeneity of air travel was statutorily enshrined in the so-called two airlines policy. In September 1967, Ansett-ANA went as far as making a 22-year-old hostess from Balwyn, Susan Jones, the face of their inflight service, having her skills enumerated in a campaign designed by J. Walter Thompson: ‘She knows how to serve a gin and tonic, stop a nose-bleed, massage a bruised ego, distract children, quietly put a pillow under your head, light your cigarette, hand you your paper—and how to say the word that cheers you after you’ve had one hell of a day.’ A photograph of petite Susan was framed by the question: ‘How can both airlines be the same? We’ve got Susan Jones.’ Not, however, for long. The final advertisement in March 1968 featured Susan showing off the engagement ring she had accepted from JWT executive Bob Foster, and revealing that she was the 842nd Ansett hostess whose career had been terminated by marriage. Susan Foster Jones later returned to the air, with Qantas in 1979, but only after her divorce.3
Additions generally became the name of the game, assuming they could be had at minimal cost, and the experience of flying long distances became a steady drizzle of hot towels and cold collations.4 Pre-recorded entertainment packages were made possible by magnetic tape, inflight movies by the development of affordable lightweight film projectors, and the serving of booze was freed up by changing social mores. Established during Prohibition, airlines in the United States had kept a puritan distance from alcohol through the 1930s and 1940s, before catching up with a vengeance. American became so famous for its Bloody Marys that it made tycoons of an enterprising couple from Southern California, Herb and June Taylor, originators of Mr and Mrs T Bloody Mary Mix. Airlines in the Bible Belt held out longest, Delta scorning liquor until 1958 in favour of more genteel touches like complimentary corsages for women and free cigars for men. But the South soon shed all inhibitions too. In becoming one of aviation’s great success stories, Texas’s Southwest also became the state’s biggest distributor of Chivas Regal.
In the sleek and silvery jet age, airline meals retained their initial purpose as a reassurance of normality. A time-honoured dictum of stewardesses spying nervous passengers was to ‘feed them first’ on grounds that ‘blood cannot be in two places at once’—that is, meals drew blood from stress areas, reducing tension in the body. But they also acquired meaning as a modest but pleasant perquisite, with a semblance of choice provided by the standard offer of one meal or another—by convention, ‘the meat’ or ‘the fish’. That was a recognisable enough meme by the late 1950s to provide the basis of the plot of the aviation thriller Zero Hour! (1957), which unfolds aboard an Air Canada DC-4 en route from Winnipeg to Vancouver after the pilots opt for the grilled halibut over the lamb chops. Soon enough, the halibut eaters are doubling over with botulism, which Dr Baird (Geoffrey Toone) explains to stewardess Janet Turner (Peggy King) can mean only one thing:
Baird: There seems to have been contaminated seafood brought on the plane.
Turner: How could the fish be contaminated? The airline checks all foods prior to departure.
Baird: Possibly because of an undetected bacteria strain or untreated cleaning processes of the seafood … but that’s not important right now!
What is important, explains the doctor, is the life-or-death scenario: ‘The life of everybody on this plane depends on just one thing—finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane but did not have fish for dinner.’ A traumatised wartime fighter pilot partial to lamb chops, Ted Stryker, reluctantly comes to the controls and saves the day—salvaging his rocky marriage in the process.
If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because it was exuberantly spoofed by the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams for Flying High (1980), after they accidentally taped Zero Hour! while harvesting television commercials to parody at their Kentucky Fried Theatre. Many of the same lines are used, both in deadly literal earnest and as the basis for catchphrases, by characters including Dr Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) and stewardess Randy (Lorna Patterson).
Dr Rumack: You’d better tell the Captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Stewardess Randy: A hospital? What is it?
Dr Rumack: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now!
One element in the film goes strangely underdeveloped. As the denouement approaches in ZeroHour!, Turner adjourns to the galley for a soothing cup of joe, and quips: ‘Remind me never to travel on this airline again. They have terrible coffee.’ It is as close as either movie comes to commenting on the quality of airline cuisine—a surprising lack in a film like FlyingHigh that allows no gag to go uncracked for 100 minutes. Too simple? Too obvious? So just when did airline food become a form of proto-joke that barely requires elaboration?5
Airline food will always struggle to be anything better than average. As previously observed, its intent is less about being good than about not being bad. Anything too attuned to one palate is bound to elicit an equal and opposite reaction from another. Airline food must perforce walk the middle of the road, and a narrow middle it must sometimes seem, given the breadth and variety of human preferences.
In the conditions under which their food is to be consumed, the designers of airline meals also face peculiar physical and social demands. The dry air aloft both instantly cools meals down and nullifies olfactory senses, while accentuating certain acidities and astringencies; low cabin pressure causes the digestive tract to swell, contributing to a general sense of discomfort. Airline food is also stripped of what on the ground adds so much to the pleasure of eating: the companionship of the table. At altitude, one eats like a prisoner in solitary confinement, staring at the back of another seat, somehow the lonelier for the proximity of one’s fellow diners. In such circumstances, it might even be disturbing to eat too deliciously or nourishingly. The English restaurant critic Fay Maschler once postulated that airline food involved a kind of ritual self-abasement:
Despite the fact that it would be perfectly possible to assemble a fine picnic and take it with one onto the plane, remarkably few people do. They need the partitioned trays, the plastic cutlery, the polythene glasses, the salt and pepper packaged like tiny tampax, because they realize that flying is not something that comes naturally to man and the food must in the end betray that fact.
But above all, because its cost is usually priced in to the value of a ticket, the quality of airline food will always be susceptible to the vagaries of profit margins in civil aviation. There is something poignant about the vision that opened this essay, with Kubrick acting as eyewitness to the technological optimism of Pan Am, circa 1968. The airline was then at its zenith, flying to no fewer than eighty-five countries, and about to take delivery of its first Boeing 747s; 2001 was emblematic of its confidence. ‘Every new hire Pan Am pilot went to see the movie,’ reports journalist Robert Gandt in his Skygods (1993). ‘In 1968, no one had yet flown to the moon, nor was anyone seriously thinking about commercial lunar flight. But it was assumed, even in science fiction, that if anyone were to fly a scheduled lunar service, it would be, of course, Pan Am.’ Pan Am was flying blind into its doom. Its new planes would prove too expensive, its old routes too difficult to defend from aggressive competitors. Fuel was about to become more expensive, bankers more militant, investors more demanding, halving Pan Am’s market value during the 1970s.
Pan Am wasn’t alone. Facing austerity for the first time since the Second World War, airlines pruned networks and services, including all those extras they had begun laying on in the 1950s. Drastic solutions were countenanced: as the industry bore the brunt of the first oil shock, Robert Timms of the US Civil Aeronautics Board suggested that airlines simply do away with offering food altogether, because their other costs such as staff and fuel were inelastic. In fact, the Civil Aeronautics Board was something else airline food outlasted, as it was abolished under the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. But as serial crises roiled, the new heroes of American aviation would prove to be those who kept their seatbelts tightly fastened, such as American’s Bob Crandall, a former department store finance executive who famously saved the airline $20,000 by deleting olives from all salads, and United’s Richard Ferris, a hotelier by background who replaced the airline’s generous steak and chicken portions with cheaper lines such as pasta, noodles and fish for which he dreamed up such exotic names as sole bonne femme. Additions and bonuses now came more frequently in arithmetical form: frequent flier points, the first scheme of which was launched by United in 1972, spread quickly. Inflight comforts were scaled back: between 1980 and the mid 1990s, per passenger food expenditures on airlines in the United States roughly halved—thus, perhaps, postdating Flying High ever so slightly.
The situation in Australia, which deferred deregulation longer, was not quite so extreme. No sooner had Rupert Murdoch taken over Ansett in partnership with TNT’s Sir Peter Abeles in January 1980 than he dragooned his Woman’s Day culinary ace Margaret Fulton into reviving the airline’s moribund menu. In her memoir, I Sang for My Supper (1999), Fulton describes being given two hours at the airline’s kitchen to whisk up the open sandwich for a ‘picnic-style meal in a box’ that became Ansabox—its biggest local effort to brand inflight service since ‘Susan Jones’. But the inexorable progress of ‘open skies’ policies around the world, shaving margins as they bore down on prices, caused most airlines to economise on food, some by outsourcing to catering firms. This was actually an old idea whose time had come. In 1937 the proprietor of a chain of food and root beer stands, J. Willard Marriott, was surprised to find long queues for his Hot Shoppe outlet at New York’s Hoover Airfield, discovering that they were Eastern Air Lines passengers accumulating snacks for their Miami flight: as mentioned, Eastern on that route only served meals on the ground. Marriott persuaded Eastern’s famous founder, fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, that Hot Shoppes should become the airline’s external caterer. The result was not only the original aviation industry outsourcing deal, Host Marriott Services Corporation becoming the market leader, but also the basis of the accumulation of a great hotel chain, on which Marriott began spending his catering cash flows. From the 1980s, airlines that had built their own catering businesses also began touting to serve others. Thus the big four of today: Gate Gourmet, formerly part of Swissair; SATS, once part of Singapore Airlines; LSG Skychefs and SA Servair, still arms of Lufthansa and Air France respectively.
Airline food, then, is a faithful reflection of an industry that in the last forty years has known as many bad times as good, as can be inferred from an alphabet of sizeable airlines that have joined Pan Am in the boneyard in that time: Ansett, Braniff, Continental, Dan-Air, Eastern, Flying Tiger, Global, Jet America, Lone Star, Malev, Mohawk, Northwest, Olympic, PSA, Republic, Swissair, TWA, UTA, Varig, Western. And after all that, Kubrick was prescient: 2001 did prove to be a date with destiny for airlines, those in the United States losing more than US$7 billion in the year after 9/11, and those in Europe and Asia suffering almost as grievously. At the time, it seemed that everyone had it in for the industry. Canadian management guru Henry Mintzberg published a popular philippic, Why I Hate Flying (2001), lamenting the industry’s inadequacies, of which food was an egregious example: ‘Do you think the airlines have designated workers to make the food taste bad? (I’m told they’re called “Accountants”.)’ And Dutch graphic designer Marco ’t Hart created a website dedicated to inflight food, airlinemeals.net, which at first seethed with complaints. ‘I started two months after 9/11 and it was a time many airlines were cutting, trying to reduce costs,’ says ’t Hart. ‘Quantities got cut back; there were more boxes, more buy-on-board meals. Metal cutlery was going for safety reasons. Glasses were disappearing and everyone was drinking from plastic cups. There were lots of bad experiences.’
Yet here’s a paradox of airline food: that as flying has grown more routinised, what we will be served has become almost the only surprise left, and contains as a result an almost unique scope for delight. ’t Hart started airlinemeals.net for fun, because he was flying a lot, and because his mother asked him what food he was being served. He soon found that there were many people like his mother—curious, even passionate about the inflight eating experience. At first, ’t Hart solicited contributions by posting on rec.travel newsgroups: ‘If you are flying and you happen to have a camera with you, please take a picture of your meal and send it to me.’ Not only was he immediately deluged with images but he also received enquiries from USA Today, the NewYork Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and was even interviewed on CNN. ‘When it [airlinemeals.net] started, it was a bit like an early version of social media,’ ’t Hart observes. ‘People could share their images and their experiences at this platform—and complain too. You’d try to complain to airlines and you could never get through. So to make your complaint, you needed another part of the internet.’
Not surprisingly, initial interest was in the worst meals. But after the general negativity of the first torrent of contributions, the tone began changing, with contributors revelling in airline food as a horizontal slice through culture—at 30,000 feet. They had Kit Kats on Mongolian Airlines? All Nippon served hot dogs with pickles? Who knew? The most engaging feature of the site—which now features around 28,000 images from 650 airlines and receives 300,000 visits a month—is the depth and variety of the comments, which range from the lugubrious (‘always the omelette … always the same’), the enraged (‘It would be hard to find this “quality” of watered down coffee and stale biscuit even at the worst truck stop on route 66’) and the resigned (‘I was hungry so I ate it. I think it looked worse than it was’) to the appreciative (‘The best beef I’ve ever had at 38,000 feet!’), the expert (‘The salty proscuitto and blue cheese went with the bitterness of the rocket and sweetness of the fig’) and the downright jubilant (‘I’ll take this caramel torte any day!’; ‘I especially loved the brownie which I requested for one more and the flight attendant gave me 3 more! Awesome!’).
Some contributors have sent hundreds of postings—one, who signs him/herself as ‘Airline Freak’, even photographs cabin crews in action. And the man who has perhaps seen as much airline food as anyone is confident in his conclusion. ‘It’s definitely getting better,’ argues ’t Hart. ‘Quantities are increasing, and quality too. There’s more variety than there used to be. A lot of airlines are using local products, trying to give tastes of the culture they’re part of. They’re hiring top chefs and really working at their menus, so it’s no longer just microwaved chicken and pasta.’
Qantas can claim to have been ahead of this last trend, having appointed Rockpool’s Neil Perry as its first-class culinary consultant more than fifteen years ago, although probably the original program was what Singapore Airlines introduced as World Gourmet Cuisine in September 1998: a refreshment of all its menus using recipes from France’s Georges Blanc (GB Parc & Spa), American David Burke (DB Kitchen), Swiss-Australian Dietmar Sawyere (Forty-One, Berowra Waters Inn), Peter A. Knipp from Singapore (Raffles Hotel) and Yoshihiro Murata of Japan (Kikunoi, Kiyamachi). Murata is still involved, on a nine-member culinary panel of celebrity chefs including New York’s Alfred Portale (Gotham Bar and Grill), Sydney’s Matt Moran (ARIA) and the irrepressible Gordon Ramsay.
British Airways (Hestor Blumenthal and Simon Hulstone), Air France (Joel Robuchon), Air New Zealand (Peter Gordon), Lufthansa (Juan Amador) and Qatar Airways (‘four chefs with seven Michelin stars between them’) have also tapped into modern gastroculture, and there is a new preparedness to cater for different types of food consumption as well. For the fussy, more than eighty airlines, including Air France and KLM, now offer pre-ordering of meals: a website, inflightfeed.com, allows easy comparison. For those partial to fast foods, Starbucks products are available on United, All Nippon, Easyjet and Horizon Air, while Japan Airlines even offers KFC.
In part, this reflects an industry on the rebound, post 9/11, post GFC, now buoyed by improving revenues and growth prospects—whether as a trend it would survive a big spike in fuel costs is perhaps debatable. But it is also an outcome of more demanding, better informed consumers, seeking more from their airlines than a commodity experience, prepared to survey the scene online and demand with specificity. The need to reassure passengers about safety has all but gone; what we have been left with is boredom, and in especially acute form, given that everyday means of distraction such as phones and the web are unavailable in the air.
‘Mile-high meals: a feast at 30,000 feet’, read a headline in the Age in April, reporting that ‘top chefs and national dishes are making bad airline food a thing of the past’. Premature? Of course. But airlines appear to have grasped that when there is almost nothing to do but eat, the experience is intensified, and pleasure obtainable out of all proportion—even for someone like Henry Mintzberg, caustic detractor of all things airborne, who nonetheless found himself seduced by a solicitous flight attendant’s offer of ‘omelet / or / poached / eggs’ on a flight over Africa:
I take the omelet. She smiles: I think she is sincerely interested in my choice. Then she asks clearly if I want coffee or tea—‘coffee / or / tea’—and when I reply neither, she understands.‘Could I have some orange juice instead?’ I ask. She replies I can have orange juice and coffee or tea. Wow! Then I get a brilliant idea. ‘Could I have two orange juices?’ Again, she smiles an honest smile. So do I. I’ll bet no-one ever took two orange juices in an airplane before. So, here I sit, my omelet / and / veal / sausage framed by a glass of orange juice on each side, feeling ever so individual. Maybe there is hope for flying after all.
- The only non-technical book I can identify as concerned entirely with airline food is an appealing compilation of historic airline recipes called Dinner in the Clouds (1985). Otherwise, it most often features in the margins of commissioned histories of airlines and general works about civil aviation.
- There is a delirious variety of air hostess–related pop culture. Fictional representations range from Bernard Glemser’s Girl on a Wing (1960) and The Super-Jet Girls (1971) to the sixteen books in a Nancy Drewesque series for children named for its plucky protagonist Vicki Barr of Worldwide Airways (1947–64). Most successful of all were the four Coffee, Tea or Me? ‘memoirs’ (1967–74), saucy romps allegedly written by two pseudonymous stewardesses but actually written by Donald Bain, a prolific penny-a-liner later responsible for the Murder, She Wrote series.
Movies updated the image from the chasteness of Air Hostess (1949) and Three Guys Named Mike (1951), to the more knowing sauciness of Come Fly with Me (1963) and Boeing Boeing (1965), to the production-line porn of The Swinging Stewardesses (1971). For all this and more, see Kathleen Barry’s Feminity in Flight (2006) and Victoria Vantoch’s The Jet Sex (2013).
- Trivial digression: Ansett released a four-track EP of the song ‘Susan Jones’, written by Pete Best. On the strength of his performance, the teenage vocalist was rewarded with a contract by EMI—which is how Johnny Farnham came to record ‘Sadie the Cleaning Lady’. Farnham then completed a curious double by recording ‘(You’ll Get a Little Bit More) The Friendly Way’, which Ansett’s rival, Trans Australian Airways, devised in response to ‘Susan Jones’.
- In Pax, Slips and Dunlops (2003), a chatty, anecdotal account of ‘65 years of inflight service on Qantas’, the hot towel is credited to a steward, Charlie Pollard, who had seen them in use in Tokyo restaurants. Alas, no substantiation or further detail is offered, but you can see a picture of him at http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/item/itemDetailPaged.aspx?itemID=87771.
- Wheels within wheels. The screenplay for Zero Hour! was the first success for Arthur Hailey, who adapted it for the novel Flight into Danger (1958). As a bestselling novelist, Hailey later wrote the original mass-market novel of airborne disaster, Airport (1968), whose screen adaptation also features a set-up involving airline food, with the passengers on their Trans Global flight seen enjoying a snack and appetisers before a mad bomber strikes. Leslie Nielsen, meanwhile, also starred in 2001: A Space Travesty (2000), which spoofs the inflight scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) mentioned earlier at rather painful length.