A History of Inflight Meals: From Ultimate Luxury to Soggy Sandwiches and the Quest for Revival

In the realm of air travel, the inflight meal has undergone a fascinating journey, from being the epitome of luxury to a subject of jokes and derision. Over the years, this essential part of the flying experience has seen dramatic transformations, with celebrity chefs now being called upon to resurrect its former glory. So, how did it all begin, and can the inflight meal ever regain its status as a luxurious indulgence?

The Origins: Humble Beginnings

The first recorded inflight meal dates back to October 11th, 1919, aboard Handley Page Transport in England, during flights from London to Paris. For a princely sum of 3 shillings, passengers were treated to a lunch box containing simple fare like sandwiches and fruit, served by the dutiful ‘cabin boys.’ In the US, Western Air Express followed suit and introduced inflight meals in the late 1920s.

Daimler Airways’ first attendant, Jack Sanderson, serving juice to passengers boarding a De Havilland

The Emergence of Hot Meals

The inflight culinary landscape experienced a significant shift in 1936 when United Airlines pioneered the installation of galleys and ovens on their aircraft. This allowed the introduction of hot meals for passengers, initially featuring basic dishes like scrambled eggs and fried chicken. Meanwhile, Trans World Airlines (TWA) pushed the boundaries by developing frozen food that could be quickly reheated, recognizing the impact of altitude on taste perception and adjusting cooking techniques and spice usage accordingly.

Innovations Take Flight

1944 saw William L Maxson introduce the ‘sky plate,’ a round divided tray used to serve meat and vegetables, which he successfully sold to the merchant navy. Later, this innovative concept found its way to Pan American World Airways, revolutionizing inflight meal service. The 1950s marked the golden age of luxury onboard, exemplified by Pan Am’s ‘Clipper’ flying boat service. Indulgent menus boasted exquisite offerings such as consommé julienne, French lamb chops, parsley potatoes, and endive salad, served with finesse on white tablecloths alongside Champagne and French wines.

William Maxson’s brainchild, the Sky Plate, could be frozen and then heated up mid-flight

First Class and Concorde: The Pinnacle of Inflight Dining

During the 1960s, British Airways and Air France reigned supreme in the realm of lavish high-quality cuisine onboard their flights. First-class passengers enjoyed opulent delicacies, including Champagne, caviar, truffles, foie gras, and lobster, with Concorde flights setting new standards of luxury. Notably, Union de Transports Aeriens enlisted the expertise of the renowned French chef Raymond Oliver in 1973, a groundbreaking move that marked the first time a chef was called upon to enhance airline meals.

Turkish Airlines Business class meal on an Istanbul to Cairo flight

A Shift in Priorities

However, the winds of change began to blow, and the airline industry pivoted toward mass travel and affordable ticket prices. The rise of low-cost airlines like Ryanair in 1984 brought about the ‘buy-on-board’ concept for inflight meals, marking a departure from the traditional complimentary service. In cost-cutting endeavors, American Airlines’ chief executive famously saved $40,000 by removing just one olive from every first-class salad in 1987. Incidents of contaminated food and food poisoning further tarnished the reputation of inflight meals, making luxury dining in the skies a thing of the past.

Food being delivered to an American Airlines Boeing 767

The Search for Redemption

Today, the responsibility for providing inflight meals largely rests with specialist airline catering companies. Airlines offer a variety of special meals to cater to religious, health, and dietary requirements. While some flights offer just a snack and a beverage, long-haul business and first-class cabins showcase the best culinary creations, often crafted by Michelin star chefs. Perhaps there is hope for a revival of restaurant-quality inflight meals, as the quest to rediscover the pleasure of dining in the skies continues.

In conclusion, the history of inflight meals reflects a fascinating evolution from humble beginnings to opulence and, ultimately, to cost-cutting compromises. As airlines strive to rekindle the allure of luxury dining in the skies, only time will tell if the inflight meal will once again ascend to its former throne as the most delectable treat at 30,000 feet.

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