No Thanks, Grandma, I’m Saving Room for Airplane Food

Some of the 30 million passengers expected to fly domestically over this Thanksgiving holiday may be stunned by what’s available to eat and drink 30,000 feet up in the sky.

To entice more travelers to pay premium fares and better stand out from the competition, major U.S. carriers have been significantly expanding their food and beverage offerings to elite-class passengers, providing menus created by celebrated chefs, wine pairings selected by master sommeliers and specialty meals available for preorder. There are onboard espresso martinis, dessert carts and even tapas service. Some passengers believe the complimentary meal and beverage service in the most expensive cabins is the best it’s ever been, both in breadth of options and in taste.

“The competition for your business is more intense and each airline is hoping for a piece of the travel resurgence pie, and that has helped in pushing airlines to enhance their menus and wine lists,” said Bobby Laurie, a former flight attendant and a co-host of the travel show “The Jet Set.”

The rest of us in economy class, where the food hasn’t changed much, will still be dreaming of Grandma’s roast turkey and trimmings, or even simply a fresh salad. From the standard pretzels and Biscoff cookies to pricey cheese plates and sandwiches, the chasm between premier and main cabins continues to widen. First, it was reduced seat space and extra fees. Now, it’s in-flight dining.

Wine vs. waffles

What is available to eat and drink on board has always varied widely by airline, and depends on both the class and distance traveled. International flights generally include complimentary meals and beverages regardless of class, and the in-flight catering — particularly on foreign carriers — is known to be more elaborate and generally considered to be of higher quality.

But any budget traveler knows not to expect food in economy cabins on domestic flights — if available, it’s usually a snack box or sandwich, for purchase. On low-cost carriers like Frontier Airlines, there are no complimentary meals or snacks at all. In its latest update to its menu of packaged snacks for purchase, the airline added an Eggo waffle, costing around $5.

As economy passengers weigh ready-to-eat waffles against growling stomachs, premium passengers, increasingly important to revenue growth for U.S. carriers, will be considering terroir and bouquet.

Last month, Delta Air Lines announced that 17 new wines, curated with the master sommelier Andrea Robinson and including a Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a Rioja Gran Reserva, would be available on a rotating basis in all cabins. But premium cabin passengers will now be able to choose between seven different wines — the highest number the airline has offered — on each flight.

Bolder flavors and aromas work better at 30,000 feet. Subtle varietals don’t do the trick, Ms. Robinson said.

“It’s not that the wine changes so much but that the atmosphere changes: lower cabin pressure, a drier environment from a taster’s perspective,” she said. “We needed the wines to have much more concentration and intensity of aroma. This is what gives you flavor.”

The carrier also introduced a new plated appetizer course, featuring dishes like dill-cured salmon, for its Delta One class, the airline’s business cabin. Customers departing from Los Angeles International Airport will be served heated nuts upon departure, followed by a chilled shrimp appetizer, and then have a choice of cacio e pepe lasagna or braised meatballs with garlic bread. For economy, there’s a new flavor of complimentary SunChips.

‘Flying restaurants’

Fabio Gamba, of the Airline Catering Association, an industry group, said in the last year, he had seen airlines go beyond what they were serving before the pandemic, trying to use improved technology and techniques to offer tastier food — as with wine, blunted taste buds and a lack of moisture are issues — as well as meet rising passenger expectations for creative and unexpected meals.

“I think airlines more and more see themselves as flying restaurants,” said Mr. Gamba, whose group works with caterers that serve Delta, American Airlines and other U.S.-based airlines. “If you go to the same restaurants, you want some change.”

Alaska Airlines boasts that it is unique among carriers in offering freshly prepared meals — rather than merely packaged snacks — in first class on flights of just several hundred miles. Next month, the carrier introduces a winter menu created from feedback by passengers and crew, who shared their favorite meals, including a sesame chicken dish recently lauded by the actor Dax Shepard.

“I know it’s not popular to say anything positive about airlines but I just have to share that I’m still reeling from a supper I had last night on an Alaskan flight from Burbank to Portland,” Mr. Shepard said in September in an Instagram post. “Ten out of ten.”

On Hawaiian Airlines, in-flight meals — which have been complimentary in all cabins for decades — are overseen the married chefs Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka of MW Restaurant in Honolulu.

“For some guests, our meals may be their very first taste of Hawaii, so we want them to start their culinary journey in-flight and expand on it once they arrive,” said Ms. Karr-Ueoka.

The carrier also collaborates with a changing roster of local talent, said Tara Shimooka, an airline spokeswoman. Starting next month, first-class meals from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland designed by the chef Jason Yamaguchi, most recently of Mugen, a fine-dining restaurant in Waikiki, include Okinawan sweet potato gnocchi, a curried braised beef brisket and a matcha soufflé pancake.

American Airlines, which opened a large catering facility in Fort Worth over the summer, works with the James Beard Foundation, a national culinary arts organization, to create menus in premium cabins. And customers flying from Chicago to six cities in Europe are served dishes designed by Avli on the Park, a local Greek restaurant and recognized by the Michelin Guide.

Rubbery chicken and mystery pasta

While United Airlines has long been known for its build-your-own ice cream sundaes in international business class and Delta’s cheeseburger is a perennial favorite, anyone who has ever flown in the United States knows that airline food has long been associated with rubbery chicken and mushy mystery pasta. Even in first class.

“You kidding me, United?” wrote Jonathan Zaback on a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that included an image of a congealed, hard-to-identify entree. “Edible food isn’t a high expectation,” posted another traveler named HangoverPoboy on a Reddit board.

Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer, said at an industry conference this fall that the airline’s catering did not smoothly bounce back when travel resumed after the height of the pandemic. But he said the carrier was making “incredible progress” in improving the food and beverage programs.

“We’ve changed the wines and we’re about to change the bread, all the new entrees. I think we’ve come a long way,” Mr. Nocella said. “We know food is an important part of United’s brand.”

In Polaris, the carrier’s international business class, passengers are now offered four entrees, up from three, when flying to and from destinations in Europe and South America. Choices include cod with butter sauce and red potatoes or spicy chicken with udon. In the last year, United introduced over 20 new wine, beer and liquor brands in Polaris.

United, like all major carriers, serves a tremendous amount of food each day — its premium cabins alone offer 165,000 meals daily, from an annual food budget of about $2 billion.

But they don’t make it in-house. Airlines, including American and United, generally outsource in-flight food preparation to global catering companies, including Gate Gourmet and LSG Sky Chefs, which prepare meals in commercial kitchens near airports and then load the food on planes.

LSG Sky Chefs, with facilities across the United States, expects to prepare nearly 72 million meals for a little over two million flights this year, said Dana Gill, a company spokeswoman.

One way to deal with scale is to allow customers to preorder meals days before flying, an option that has only expanded since the height of the pandemic.

Alaska recently doubled the number of preorder options in its main cabin. Its first class customers can now choose in advance among five different entrees instead of three, including a vegan meal.

Efforts by airlines to burnish their in-flight catering have won over some customers as of late. Aaron Cohen, a Boston-based consultant at Deloitte Consulting, flies for work several times a month. Swayed by the food options at Delta’s lounges and on its planes, in August 2022 he switched over from American, where he’d earned elite status, to Delta for business travel.

In the last two weeks, he’d been on four flights where he had been upgraded to first class. Flying from Tampa to Boston, he said he’d eaten a truly delicious pumpkin spice chia pudding with figs and toasted pumpkin seeds. Braised short rib is another of his in-flight favorites.

“It really has been good food,” Mr. Cohen, 40, said, adding that in-flight catering made up a significant portion of his diet. “If I was going to an actual restaurant, I’d say it’s pretty comparable to that.”

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