An Insider’s Guide to Inflight Dining

Love it or hate it, snacking in the sky has long been a cornerstone of modern air travel.

Airplane meal
Dinner is served. | Alexander Spatari/Moment/Getty Images
Dinner is served. | Alexander Spatari/Moment/Getty Images

Confession: I secretly love airplane food. There’s something comforting about those perfectly proportioned, largely bland, and inoffensive bites. The aluminum foil-topped pudding cup full of strikingly sour orange that Delta hands out right before landing tastes like giddy anticipation to me, and don’t even get me started on KLM’s strange yet ubiquitous Beemster cheese on wheat. Not to mention, meal service is one of the only times I’m forced to put away my laptop and give myself a work break while I’m in the air.

So when Turkish Airlines invited me on a weekend trip to Istanbul to sample its freshly revamped inflight dining menu on the way to the UEFA Champions League Final, no one had to ask me twice. The flight was scheduled to leave Dulles International Airport at 22:45 (a.k.a. 10:45 pm), but thanks to some inevitable 2023-style delays, it was close to midnight by the time we actually got on board. Would they even be serving food at this ungodly hour?

Chef serving food on an airplane
Turkish Airlines’ new menu is doled out by actual chefs. | Turkish Airlines

The answer? Absolutely. As I struggled to keep my eyes open, I was handed a menu detailing three full courses, each with multiple options, plus a separate wine and spirits list stocked with thoughtful regional selections. A few minutes after takeoff, an onboard chef sporting a crisp white toque—not a flight attendant, mind you—took my order and we were underway. A mezze platter crowned with grilled chicken gave way to hand-minced and char-broiled Adana kebab, citrus cheesecake, and a glass of chilled Turkish liqueur. Then, dishes cleared and tray table safely stowed, I drifted off to sleep in a state of blissful satiation.

Of course, my late-night culinary cornucopia was far from the norm. On most flights, especially shorter hops, I’m lucky if I can get my hands on a bag of pretzels. And while I’m always happy to indulge (see above), even long-haul options tend to taste like a vague chicken- or pasta-shaped afterthought. And some flights forgo complimentary meals altogether, forcing travelers to shell out upwards of $10 for a snack box or cold cut sandwich. So how did we arrive here, in a world where inflight dining varies so wildly that you can come off one flight with little more than peanuts in your system and be treated to an elaborate midnight feast on the next?

Lobster dinner on an airplane
Back in the Concorde’s mid-century heyday, flying was all caviar dreams and champagne wishes. | Jim Sugar/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

From sky-high surf ‘n turf to little more than peanuts

When airline Handley-Page decided to hand out pre-packaged boxed lunches to passengers aboard its flight from London to Paris on October 11, 1919, they unknowingly invented airplane food. Those humble sandwiches and pieces of fruit set the tone for what would quickly become one of air travel’s most ubiquitous perks, primarily thanks to widespread regulations that tightly controlled how much (or how little) an airline could charge for tickets.

“Before deregulation, the airlines could not compete on ticket prices—Those were set by the government,” says Bob van der Linden, commercial aviation curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. “So, how do you get somebody on your airplane as opposed to another airline? You offered amenities, and the easiest and most obvious one was meals. It was all marketing.”

Those early lunch boxes soon found themselves joined by cold fried chicken, a popular choice because it was filling, could be prepared and stored in bulk, and didn't need to be heated. Soon, however, the airlines began designing meals specifically for planes, installing small kitchens in the galleys and devising more efficient packaging systems. “At first, if word got around that your airline’s food was really good, people would fly on yours,” van der Linden adds. “But it came to a point where travelers’ expectations were such that you had to provide it. That’s capitalism.”

By the 1950s, frozen food was the norm, favored for its convenience and cost-saving measures as it prevented excess waste if a flight was undersold or canceled. As technology advanced, inflight dining became both more elaborate and more commonplace. “Airplane travel used to be so much more glamorous,” confirms Zach Griff, senior reporter at travel industry go-to The Points Guy. “Fancy steak and freshly cooked lobster on the same flight? Those days are now history, but they used to happen with frequency, even in the economy cabin.”

Women eating meals on an airplane
Mealtime on an early Qantas Boeing 737 flight. | Photo courtesy of Qantas

But just because something is standard doesn’t mean it’s cheap, and the airlines very quickly felt the sting associated with these luxe presentations. Unable to raise or lower their ticket prices to attract new customers or make up for lost revenue, carriers had little choice but to trim the fat wherever they could whenever the economy turned south. Onboard meals were consistently in their crosshairs.

“There's a story that American Airlines took a pickle or an olive, something like that, out of a salad and it saved them like a hundred thousand a year,” says van der Linden. “Anywhere you could cut costs, you would, because you're spreading it over thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of flights a year serving millions of passengers. Save a penny here, save a penny there, and that's millions of dollars.”

Yet when airlines pulled back on spending, the quality of the meals served onboard naturally took a hit and passengers eventually began to notice. Airplane food’s reputation shifted from an elevated dining experience to a less-than-enticing compulsory component of air travel. Then, in the late 1970s, everything changed.

“It used to be that no matter where you went, no matter where you sat in the airplane—coach is the way I always traveled—you were fed pretty well, a proper hot multi-course meal,” says van der Linden. “My recollection is that people complained about how terrible the food was, and then after deregulation in 1978, the airlines said, ‘Well, we don't need to serve it.’ As long as they filled the plane with passengers who paid enough to make a profit, that's all they cared about.”

Arguably the biggest game-changer in American aviation history, the Airline Deregulation Act was an amendment to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. The new legislation embraced the free market, removing prior government control over crucial economic factors like airfare, flight routes, and the development of new airlines and instead leaving those matters to private companies to decide. And while the act didn’t specifically address inflight catering, the subsequent trickle down effect was profound. How so? Two words: discount airlines. These low-cost carriers kept their budgets tight by nixing once-staple amenities like first class cabins, reserved seats, checked luggage, and—of course—inflight eats. And as a result, their customers shared in the savings.

“Southwest, the world's premier discount airline up until 2018, was famous for handing out peanuts—like, ‘Hey, we're saving you money by not having full meals,’” adds van der Linden. “In a kind of interesting way, not having food was a really effective marketing tool.”

Flight attendant pouring drinks on a plane
A Southwest Airlines flight attendant pours drinks—and only drinks—for her passengers. | Photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines

No food, no drink, no problem

Southwest’s groundbreaking innovations sparked a revolution in air travel. In the decades that followed, legacy carriers like American Airlines, United, Continental, TWA, Delta, and others began dropping complimentary meals from their in-air services. Instead, economy customers had the option to purchase premium refreshments like cocktails onboard while flight attendants still doled out soft drinks and small snacks for free on what evolved into a industry-standard schedule.

“Nowadays, airline meal service follows a very straightforward script,” says Griff. “Airlines across the country have largely aligned their service levels to match each other, so it’s easy to predict what you’re going to be served when—on most domestic flights, a drink and snack service will be offered after takeoff, and depending on the length, you might be offered a refill as you get closer to landing.”

If the years before deregulation taught us anything, it’s that uniformity is basically a breeding ground for economic-fueled pivoting. As the big players once again morphed into offering basically the same product for the same amount of money, a new generation of deeply discounted budget airlines flew into the market, each with a laser-sharp focus on debundling. “When [airlines] are tossing crackers and soft drinks at you, those seem free, but it's actually in the price of your ticket,” van der Linden says, referencing the major airlines’ historic tendency to “bundle” common amenities alongside the cost of your seat. “That's why discount airlines don't provide food or provide it for a charge. You don't feel like eating? You’ll save yourself five bucks.”

Delta snack box
Delta’s Flight Fuel buy-on-board menu includes pre-packaged snack boxes. | Photo courtesy of Delta

Seeing how many discount airline passengers were willing to purchase their food and drinks onboard, mainstream carriers started adding more substantial paid offerings, like sandwiches and cheese and cracker plates, in addition to free pretzels and Cokes. “These buy-on-board menu items are usually similar to what you’d be served as a snack on a long-haul international flight for free,” says Griff. “But on domestic and short international trips, airlines can get away with charging for food, hence why buy-on-board menus exist.”

For budget airlines, today’s inflight dining landscape is even more stark. Hop on a Spirit flight and you’ll find yourself shelling out extra cash for any number of creature comforts, including carry-ons bigger than a knapsack, a bag of chips, and, yes, even water. Why? Because they can. Between consulting experts and scouring the internet for weeks on end, I could not find a shred of evidence that a rule requiring airlines to provide food or drinks, complimentary or otherwise, has ever existed. Ostensibly, you could board a 16-hour flight from LAX to Sydney without ever seeing a cup of tap water tossed your way.

Strangely enough, the only circumstance in which airlines are forced by law to outfit their passengers with food and drink isn’t even airborne. According to legislation posted by the Department of Transportation just this year, any plane experiencing a lengthy ground delay must now provide each passenger with “a snack, such as a granola bar, and drinking water no later than two hours after the start of the tarmac delay.” And even then, there are limitations—the rules specify that “airlines do not have to serve passengers full meals during a tarmac delay,” and further go on to note that food and water service can be skirted “due to safety or security reasons.”

First class airplane dinner
Sky’s the limit when you’re flying in a premium cabin. | Tony Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus

How the other half eats

On the other side of the coin, of course, are the luxe inflight dining programs available in premium cabins across the industry. In the same way that budget airlines separated themselves from the pack by slashing ticket prices at the expense of free refreshments, first and business class offerings viewed onboard meals as their own opportunity to shine. “Now on any airline, business and first class food is excellent, but you're paying through the nose for that ticket,” says van der Linden. “You're usually a high roller and expect the best treatment possible. Back in coach? No, but you're also not paying what the people in front are paying.”

While legacy airlines might not be able to beat discount carriers in the unbundling game, they can one-up them by filling their first class cabin with lavish spreads, expansive suites, and doting flight attendants. And as the airlines once again slid into a familiar pattern of mirrored amenities—lie-flat seats, big screen TVs, down comforters, upmarket toiletries—curating a unique food and drink menu grew even more important. Hence, my Turkish Airlines feast above the clouds, one which an airline representative says is “designed to follow healthy nutrition trends and includes flavors from both traditional Turkish cuisine and world cuisines sourcing 80% of the ingredients used from local producers.”

For van der Linden, his most memorable high-brow airplane food experience occurred somewhat ironically in an aircraft that’s as long-gone as the concept of wining and dining every passenger, regardless of ticket class.

“I'm not trying to be a name-dropper, but as curator for air transportation here at the museum, the Concorde is one of my airplanes—I was in France and they flew me back here on it as a Smithsonian representative,” he says, referring to the retired Concorde on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. “That meal on the Air France Concorde is one of the finest meals I've ever had anywhere. You wouldn't expect anything less from the national airline of France.”

“But, of course,” he adds, “it was 20 years ago that I took that flight out.”

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Meredith Heil is the Editorial Director of Thrillist Travel. She will have a gin and tonic and the pasta, please. Follow her @mereditto.