Does Airline Food Always Have to Suck?

Go behind the scenes as an airline tries to make food interesting and enjoyable.

March 1, 2010— -- Airline food has never had a good reputation. It's often dry, salty and looks like something more fit for a dog than a human.

But for those lucky enough to sit in the front of the plane, meals are served on fine china and come in multiple courses. They not only excite the taste buds but bring back a sense of service and class to flying.

Preparing such a feast is not an easy production.

Every few months, Singapore Airlines reviews, tastes and tweaks its dishes for the coming season. It's a complicated process that not only has to factor in taste but cost and airplane galley space constraints.

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Hermann Freidanck oversees all food and beverage service for the airline and personally tastes -- along with a team of other chefs -- each dish.

Throughout the event, Freidanck would take a bite, puck his lips and then give blunt critiques to the chefs and caterers surrounding him.

"You put too much in," he told one chef after sipping a soup. "It tastes too fishy. For a wonton soup, it tastes too fishy."

Singapore Airlines flies two of the longest commercial airline routes in the world. Its Singapore to Newark, N.J. flight is 10,317 miles and takes about 18 hours. The flight from Los Angeles to Singapore takes even longer -- at 18 and a half hours. The L.A. route is longer due to headwinds; the Newark flight goes over the North Pole and is faster despite the extra 1,200 miles flown.

Food for its passengers isn't just about eating.

"Because our flights are so long, our food has to do more than feed you. It has to entertain you," said airline spokesman James Boyd. "It's about a lot more than just getting you fed."

Striving for the Best Airline Food

Preparing dishes for an airline is not an easy task. Food is prepared at various airports and then reheated on the plane.

At New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, dishes are prepared by the Flying Food Group, an airline caterer that also makes dishes there for more than a dozen airlines including KLM, Alitalia, Air France, British Airways and Icelandair.

Singapore Airlines prepares 55,000 meals each day in its Singapore kitchen alone.

It also serves thousands of additional meals from 45 other kitchens around the world, including Flying Food Group's sprawling facility near JFK's cargo terminals.

Every decision made about a dish has thousands of repercussions worldwide. For instance, if an extra wonton is added to a soup, 55,500 extra wontons need to be made in the Singapore kitchen alone.

That not only adds to the cost, but takes up more space and more weight. For roughly every three pounds of weight on a plane, the airline needs another pound of fuel. (And for every three pounds of extra fuel, the airline needs another pound of fuel to account for that weight.)

American Airlines famously saved $40,000 in 1987 by eliminating one olive from each salad in first class.

Singapore Airlines spends $500 million a year on food and another $16 million a year on wine.

The airline's first class passengers go through 20,000 bottles of wine and champagne each month. What's even more shocking is that no plane has more than 12 first-class seats. That's a lot of wine per passenger. (The airline historically is the second-largest buyer of Dom Perignon Champagne in the world.)

The cost of meals roughly doubles in each class of service.

So with all these choices, what is the most-requested meal? The lobster thermidor.

Cooking Dinner on an Airplane

There are other considerations for airlines. The unique cooking conditions at 40,000 feet require the airline to rethink simple things, such as the portion of water added into a dish.

"One of the difficulties is because we are cooking on the ground and then heating up [up in the air] the proportion of rice and liquid has to be just right because otherwise you end up with a pancake upstairs," Freidanck explained. "When they reheat, the rice sucks out all the water."

A dish takes about three hours from the time it is cooked to be loaded onto a cart, then loaded on a truck and then driven out to the plane. If there is a delay, it could be several more hours until passengers actually consume the food.

To help keep the food fresh, each item -- the meat, the potatoes, the vegetables -- are all kept in separate foil compartments for business and first class meals. Each item, including the sauce, is then re-heated separately by the flight attendant onboard.

"For example, a steak can be cooked in a convection oven so it can brown, while vegetables can go into a microwave to stay crunchy and the sauce is always applied to the dish at the last moment so that all the flavors remain distinct," Boyd said

The flight attendants then arrange each meal on a dish according to specifications set out in binders on each plane. There is even a photo -- taken by Freidanck and his team -- of how the dish should look.

(Economy passengers don't get quite the same treatment. Their meals come in one ready-to-serve dish that is just re-heated. But Singapore Airlines still tries to plan its dishes for the best presentations. For instance, pork and rice are separated by a wall of vegetables in one dish to help keep the sauces and tastes separate while heating and to prevent the rice from drying out.)

Finally, the premium passengers' dishes get a garnish.

"We always add one or two herb garnishes because it gives it a feeling freshness," Freidanck said.

What a Gourmet Meal at 40,000 Feet?

So why all this fuss, especially when passengers aren't expecting a gourmet meal. Well, because some passengers still do.

Airlines have often gone out of their way to treat their business and first class customers like royalty. Those customers often pay top dollar for the premium seats and airlines vigorously fight for their loyalty. Filling a plane with full-fare business travelers can make up for any losses from a deeply-discounted coach cabin.

For instance, a typical round-trip economy class ticket between New York and Singapore costs $1,500. A business class seat is $7,000 and a first-class ticket on the same route would be $10,000.

The giant table set up at Flying Food Group included dishes that Singapore Airlines planned to serve in the next four months.

Premium passengers are served a five-course meal and have plenty of choices: one of two appetizers, one of two soups, a salad, one of main courses, one of two desserts and then finally assorted cheese fruits.

Freidanck and his team worked their way down the table. There was a roasted Maine lobster, pan-fried chicken breast stuffed with provolone cheese and wrapped with Parma ham, a halibut dish and seared sirloin in red wine sauce. Basically, there was a dish for every taste … until you got to the tiny corner reserved for the few coach meal choices. (They actually looked appetizing, though not as nice as the sautéed linguine with chopped garlic, olive oil, and fresh herbs.)

The airline switches its first-class meal choices every month and twice a month provides new offerings for business class and economy, which means that in a few months Freidanck and his team will be back at it, fussing over every little scoop of caviar and the number of beets in the salads.