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What’s the deal with airline food? An in-flight dining critic explains

Graphic: Nick Wanserski (Photos from instagram.com/inflightfeed)
Graphic: Nick Wanserski (Photos from instagram.com/inflightfeed)

Airline food: butt of jokes, favorite subject of ’90s stand-up comedy routines, butt of jokes about ’90s stand-up comedy routines. It’s also the passion of Nikos Loukas, the primary voice behind the 4-year-old website Inflightfeed.com and its associated Instagram account, a hypnotic scroll of seat-back trays and tiny wine bottles that counts more than 12,000 followers.

Loukas has spent as many as five days per week traveling over the course of his 15 years in the airline industry. Currently, he’s a training manager for flight personnel, keeping catering crews and other folks in the airline version of back-of-house up to date on the field’s latest technology. On his own time, Loukas also contributes regularly to the trade journal Onboard Hospitality, writing dining-related industry news from an insider’s perspective and offering enthusiastic reviews of airline meals. More than just the standard pretzels or sandwiches on hard rolls, his repasts can be a fascinating mix of rarefied gourmet cuisine—like that found in Air France transatlantic first class—and the wholly eccentric—such as the Taiwanese airline’s Hello Kitty-themed flights that offer salad vegetables, pastry, and bread cut in the shape of the iconic cat (that’s not actually a cat).

Between landings and takeoffs, Loukas spoke to The A.V. Club from his home in Germany to discuss dining and drinking at 30,000 feet, as well as his forthcoming documentary on the subject.

The A.V. Club: Have you ever worked in the food and beverage industry on the ground, in a regular restaurant, or has it always been in the air?

Nikos Loukas: I was going to university to complete a hospitality course, and I wanted to be a chef. Then one day I just kind of snapped and went, “Oh, I don’t want to do this.” I love food and I love travel, and that’s why I think I’m obsessed with the airline food part of things. I love planes. I have ever since I was a small kid.

Photo: @inflightfeed

AVC: Even if the food on a plane is really good by the standards of airline food, it’s arguably not going to measure up against great dining on the ground. So what makes you so interested in it? Is it just that you’re trapped up there?

NL: It’s a form of in-flight entertainment. If you’ve got nothing else to do, it kind of keeps you busy for up to an hour. I remember seeing something at a conference a while ago, where a guy was telling us about research that had been done with passengers, and the top three things that people think about before a flight. It was “Am I going to get there on time?” “Are my bags going to arrive?” and… I can’t remember the third one, but it wasn’t really anything exciting. Then, when they get to the other end, the thing most people talk about is the food, how the crew were, and whether they got there on time. It’s a funny thing. People hate [airline food], they dis it all the time, but they’ll happily accept it if it’s free. Everyone’s always got a story. I’ll ask you now: What’s your most memorable airline meal? I hope you don’t mind me asking, because I’ve got a point to this. How far back can you go? Can you go back 10 or 15 years to a meal that you had, whether it was good or bad?

AVC: The first time I flew business class, I was very impressed that we got ice cream sundaes.

NL: How long ago was that?

AVC: At least 10 years ago?

NL: Okay, so what was the last ice cream that you ate? Or what did you have for lunch last Tuesday?

AVC: Uh…

NL: See my point? I love doing this at conferences, because I’ll say to the airline people sitting in the audience, “Come on, you are creating experiences and memories for your passengers when they’re flying with you. Do you want them to remember the lovely ice cream sundae from 10 years ago, or do you want them to remember some horrid meal that you put together really cheaply? And you know, why don’t you spend a little bit more money?” It’s funny, because I feel like I’m always trying to speak up for airline food. Because it’s kind of the underdog.

AVC: Does food taste different in the air or in a pressurized cabin?

NL: Yes, it definitely does. Probably if you’re flying in a 787, the food might taste slightly better. The jury’s kind of out for me because everything’s pressurized, and you would have to check this on the Boeing site, but 787s are pressurized at a lower altitude, which means that you do feel better when you get off at the other end. But when we fly, our sense of taste is blocked by about 15 to 20 percent. I believe, in some cases, even 30 percent.

I interviewed a guy at Japan Airlines about how they were offering KFC as a second meal service in economy class on certain flights from Tokyo to Europe and America years ago. They worked with KFC, and what they did was they increased the salt by X amount, by 10 or 15 percent, just to make it taste more like KFC when it is in the air. You’ve got airlines like Lufthansa, which uses a hyperbaric chamber in Munich to taste. What they’ll do is they create all the meals and then they get a group of people into this hyperbaric chamber, pressurize it to what an aircraft is flying at when it’s at 35,000 feet, and they taste the meals. [The combination of dryness and low pressure dulls taste buds, studies have shown. —ed.]

Photo: @inflightfeed

AVC: How has technology affected the way food is prepared in the air? What are the biggest advances?

NL: Probably the ovens and the equipment that’s been made available to crews in the last 10, 15 years. Most airlines now have kind of a steamer oven that tends to steam the food, rather than just blowing hot air on it. It makes for a much more moist meal, not as dry. Airlines have now got toasters and proper skillets on board that they’re using. That kind of thing was probably unheard of 20 years ago. Then, back in the ’50s and ’60s, you had airlines like Pan American who were really cooking at 35,000 feet. But there’s so many of us traveling these days that it’s kind of like going to a wedding. It becomes mass catering, and it just becomes a little bit more boring and less exciting than how it was 40 or 50 years ago.

AVC: What are some of the hardest things to cook or serve in the air? Is there anything that even if you saw it on the menu in first class, you’d say, “I don’t think I’m gonna go with that?”

NL: I’ve had a few really nice fish dishes, but the jury’s still out for me on seafood and fish. One, because it can make you very sick if it wasn’t cooked properly—though the same goes with chicken. I tend to stick to either vegetarian or the chicken or beef. If there’s seafood, I kind of stay away from it. I just think it could end up tasting a little bit rubbery.

AVC: What are some of the best things you’ve eaten on a plane?

NL: There’s so many different ones. Speaking of seafood, I had a really nice lobster thermidor on a first-class trip with Singapore Airlines. I used miles, because there’s no way I’d pay the exorbitant prices, but that was really nice. I’ve had a really nice schnitzel on a low-cost airline out of Austria. I’ve had fresh sushi that was prepared just an hour before my flight on a Turkish airline, of all things. I’ve even eaten from Lenôtre [a French culinary brand famous for its pastry] in Paris on an Air France flight in economy class. I did pay for that.

AVC: It seems like business-class and first-class dining options are getting fancier and fancier, with celebrity chef affiliations and seasonal menus and such, but economy isn’t getting any more interesting foodwise. Unless you count premium economy, which can be inconsistent airline to airline.

NL: I do remember being in premium economy and going, “Oh, this is like worse than economy, this meal.” The seat was okay, but it kind of felt like a rip-off. Then you have other airlines that have come out with a premium economy where it was like I was sitting up in business class. They put a really nice tablecloth down, lovely food options. It was quite amazing.

There will be airlines that will excel, and then you’ll have others that just don’t care. If you look at the Middle Eastern airlines, a lot of them are doing hot towels and printed menus with up to four meal choices in economy. Then you have other airlines that you can fly with in economy based here in Europe, and they’re not about to give you a choice at all. You just get given a meal—and if you don’t like it, too bad. I really think it depends on the region in the world, where you are. Like in America, Delta has just announced that they’re doing free meals on select flights to Honolulu, even in economy now. I think that’s going to be the start of things changing in America. And so they should, because the airlines there are making an absolute fortune.

Photo: @inflightfeed

AVC: Usually when you fly domestically in America in economy, all you get is the option to buy a $10 box of crackers and trail mix. It’s very disappointing.

NL: Yeah, bring back the free meals, I’d say. It’s happened in Australia. Virgin Blue, they were a low-cost airline and they’ve become a traditional airline offering better food—being able to appeal more to corporate customers, that sort of thing. They reinstated free meals just to go head-to-head with Qantas, the national carrier. It’s now happening in America. In Europe, though, we’ve got so many airlines here that are just taking food back and making you pay for it.

AVC: You recently finished a crowdfunding campaign to make a documentary about the world of airline dining, so clearly this is a topic of interest to many.

NL: Yeah, we were very lucky, but this is the second time that we’ve tried to do it. We initially were trying to do a worldwide documentary. We were trying to raise about $50,000. We were going to visit all sorts of places around the world, and that failed miserably. Then we went back to the drawing board and were like, “Okay, why don’t we concentrate on Europe, because we’re here and it won’t cost too much to get around.” We needed about $10,000. We got just over $10,000, which is amazing.

I’ve had so many airlines contacting us that want to be part of it, which is lovely, but we’re kind of sticking to airlines that have a great story to tell and trying to show people what these guys go through in order to deliver something edible in-flight. It should be fun. We’re going to go to New York in November. Most of the other filming is in London, Paris, Riga, Athens, Istanbul, Frankfurt, here in Europe. Hopefully we’ll finish by about February.

AVC: Which airlines have those really great stories, in your opinion?

NL: A perfect example is Scandinavian Airlines. For their flights to Japan, they went and found the world’s first sake that’s brewed in Europe, in a little village in the middle of nowhere in Norway. They went and found these people and said, “Look, we want to put your sake on our flights to Tokyo.” They work with local producers there and try to create these fusion dishes that have kind of a Scandinavian feel to it.

Aegean Airlines in Greece, they highlight the different Greek Islands on board their flights through taste and smell, for a few months each time. You might jump on a flight next week with them to Athens and they may be promoting, I don’t know, some sort of dish from Corfu. They’ll have it on the in-flight magazine, and it will be on your meal tray, and they’ll play a video about Corfu. They’re kind of like ambassadors for Greece. I think that’s really lovely, because I think the passenger going to Greece for a holiday, it gives them that first taste before they even get there. It’s kind of that last memory that you have before you leave. For people coming home, it’s also a really nice welcome home. I think airlines that do stuff like that, they’re spending money to do that, they’re investing in your experience in-flight, and they’re worth flying with.