One of the most common jokes referenced by stand-up comedians (pretty much universally) has to do with the quality and texture of airline food. Naturally, it would seem that a lot of people think dining during flights is less than satisfactory, however, not everyone feels this way of course. Some people actually seem to think that airplane food gets a bad reputation and that any negative perceptions of it are simply byproducts of several other factors (which are more or less unavoidable). In all honesty, it would seem that most plane food isn’t all that great, but then again, that really depends upon which airline you’re flying with…
First off there’s the issue of logistics; specifically, what sorts of foods can you bring onboard which are able to not only be loaded onto an aircraft, pre-cooked, and remain somewhat fresh and edible for hours. Then there’s the fact that there aren’t extensive cooking facilities on planes, which makes it difficult to provide any sort of quality meal that’s not already been arranged in advance. For this very reason, many airlines opt to serve certain kinds of meals immediately (within hours). Obviously, for those meals which come many hours after takeoff, the ovens are used to heat the food containers to the proper temperature. However, these later dining opportunities tend to be heavily choreographed and are supposed to make extremely effective use of onboard energy, so mistakes have to be minimized.
Next, you have the health concerns and tastes of the passengers to deal with. It’s not easy to cater to everyone, if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant or has any cooking experience then you already know what I’m talking about. First and foremost, you have to design meals which aren’t likely to be easily contaminated or cause an illness to break out while on board. Aside from the obvious issue of not endangering the passengers with food poisoning, there’s the very real consideration of bathroom access. Just imagine 200 or more passengers all coming down with serious stomach or digestive problems at the same time and you can see how that would cause major problems on multiple fronts. Similarly, most airlines opt to go with simpler, perhaps “blander” items which are both safe to consume under strenuous circumstances as well as appealing to more uncomplicated tastes.
Finally, it’s been noted that human taste buds tend to function differently at extreme altitudes. What’s the reason for this? The drying of the nasal passages because of excessive dryness in the air in combination with the effect that air pressure has on taste causes people to perceive their food differently. Because of these factors, many airlines opt to go with some dishes which have a bit of a salty flavor, which helps to alleviate or compensate for the loss of taste. Likewise, while researching new servable foods and designing menus; airlines will often bring new dishes onto a craft for taste-testing or even use specially-designed sealable rooms which can simulate the conditions that passengers are to dine in.