Time for a change in airline food

by Bryan Salvage
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KANSAS CITY – Several weeks ago while cooling my heels at a very quiet airport in the Southern US for several hours waiting for my flight home to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago during one of several Arctic cold spells we’ve suffered through this year, it approached lunch time. So, I picked up a pre-packaged chicken salad croissant and a Diet Pepsi without looking at their prices and brought them to the payment counter. Another man was behind me with a sandwich and a beverage. When the clerk told me the total was $9.97, the man standing behind me and I quickly glanced at each other in disbelief, rolled our eyes…but I paid for both at this near-vacant food stand in silence and then meekly walked away.

While staring at this sandwich, (which was good, by the way) in disbelief regarding its price tag while unwinding a ton of cling wrap from it at the same time, my mind traveled back to the old Road Warrior days when I traveled quite a bit for business. Back then, many, if not all, of the major airlines offered hot meals on board, for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The food was included in the cost of the ticket. In those days, you had a choice for the main entrée for each meal, however, I often refused food as my flights were generally short and I often times had lunch scheduled with a client or dinner with my wife once I got home.

Back in the mid-1980s, I once worked with a chef on occasion who headed up United Airline’s inflight kitchen in Chicago, during the annual New Products Contests while at my first food-trade magazine job. The chef was one of three judges for several years in that publication’s annual foodservice contests. European -trained and educated, he was a superb chef and he also managed the kitchen for a major white table-cloth restaurant in Chicago’s Loop along the Chicago River.

In those days, I flew United quite a bit and although I can’t remember the specifics it seems to me we usually had choices between red meat, poultry and fish for lunch and dinner — plus several choices of entrées for breakfast. I remember the food being very good, those few times I imbibed. I also remember that the only time in my life I ever ate turtle soup was during a very turbulent United flight to Philadelphia; it was good soup yet indescribable.

I don’t know how the flight attendants (most were very young stewardesses back in those days) did it. Serving piping-hot meals while bouncing through the air at 32,000 feet during crowded, sometimes turbulent flights was no easy chore. But they always did it in style and with a smile.

But as the years passed, such on-board meals during domestic flights in business class became a thing of the past. Hot entrées gave way to pre-made cold sandwiches on many airlines and then pre-made sandwiches gave way to small packages of pretzels or cookies for several years — and eventually this gave way to only your choice of beverages. Later on, some domestic flights began offering food again for an extra fee. It appears passengers flying first-class are still served food on some airlines, but I never flew first-class in my life.

These days, it appears hungry passengers (other than first-class or international passengers) either bring their food from home or buy food to take on their flight from a store or restaurant at the airport. I always seem to sit in front of someone who has a large paper bag with food and their bag opens and closes repeatedly making loud, crackling noises throughout the entire flight.

To make matters worse, once upon a time, most hotels either had their own restaurant or were built within walking distance to one or several QSRs or family-style restaurants. Some towns I’ve visited on business only had a Pizza Hut or a buffet restaurant. These days, particularly while visiting meat or poultry plants in remote parts of the country, it is not uncommon to stay at a hotel that doesn’t have a restaurant or restaurants nearby. As a result, particularly at the end of a very long day of travel, I have had my share of vending machine meals (i.e., M&M’s with peanuts or a package of cookies washed down by a soda).

I would think that if an enterprising entrepreneur could develop a line of food (sandwiches, self-heating entrées, etc.) for airline passengers that are affordable, portable and taste good, he or she would have a gold-mine business. I’d like to see beef, poultry and pork offerings…but kept simple. Such fare could be sold at airports, eaten on board during a flight or even in a hotel – if in a pinch.

Until then, I will keep my current travel routine — avoid food until after I land and collect my baggage. But I guarantee you — should someone develop this suggested line of portable airline food, I’ll be one of the first in line to give it a try.

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