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Flight of Not Fancy: The Sickening Truth of Airline Food

The golden age of air travel is well behind us. Some would argue that it is so far behind us that anyone under the age of fifty missed the brief era of relative luxury and “service” that was requisite on each departing flight (in my limited years of experience, “luxury and service” constituted the outmoded practice of awarding delayed travelers free flights and upgrades as a way of saving face with beleaguered customers).

It is arguable whether or not airline food was ever all that good (on the whole) but most of us could say with overwhelming confidence that it sure isn’t now.

Over the past decade airline food (especially after September 11, 2001) saw a steep decline in both quality and availability, with many carriers opting to not offer any meal service at all (except for a few salty snacks to keep you paying for drinks). This left hungry travelers either out of luck, or motivated to adopt a “bring your own” approach to air travel. This development forced passengers to pack meals and snacks for the long haul (which left a wake of sticky trash and half-eaten food in the seat back pocket) or pay through the nose for the substandard offerings of hero sandwiches and aged Mediterranean plates. While I don’t have hard numbers, a general estimate would gather that more than 60 percent of travelers opt to eat whatever is available onboard. That is likely about to change.

According to a USA Today report from earlier this week, Inspectors for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discovered live roaches, dead roach carcasses “too numerous to count,” ants, flies, debris, bacteria, and employees preparing food with their bare hands in numerous catering facilities responsible for preparing a huge chunk of the country’s airline meals. This information, drawn from approximately two years of observation, implicated two of the world’s biggest airline caterers, LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, and another large caterer, Flying Food Group, which services such popular carriers as Delta, American, United, US Airways, and Continental and operate 91 kitchens that provide more than 100 million meals annually to U.S. and foreign airlines at U.S. airports. The FDA report goes on to document poor hygiene, vermin, and general unclean conditions, but enough said.

So when things get this bad, the only thing left to do is to take things into your own hands and join the other 40 percent of passengers and join the mile high diners club. But for many travelers, who are already sufficiently weighted down, stressed out, or clueless when it comes to packing a meal that will maintain its integrity, going hungry might seem like a better option. Rather than buying pre-made food at the airport food court, I usually throw together a salad, some nuts, and some fruit for my in flight nourishment (I choose to eat on the lighter side of things, as sitting for hours on end with a full belly is only conducive to gas pains). I pack light, and throw in a few cold packs when necessary (or convenient) and hope for no delays.

How do you deal with in flight meals? Is it worth the trouble of packing it in, or do you just give in to whatever is being offered? Will the latest FDA report influence your eating habits one way or another? If you do choose the DIY approach, what are your most trusted items to bring, and what are your most trusted tricks to keeping the meal intact and edible?

Read more: Blogs, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Following Food, , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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12:34AM PDT on Sep 23, 2014

Amazing work pals, I really enjoy reading your interesting blogs.

11:08PM PDT on Aug 2, 2013

No video, ty for article.

11:01PM PDT on Aug 2, 2013

No video, ty for article.

8:09AM PDT on Mar 18, 2012

I am not surprised at this article. I have always found the food on economy so inexplicably and shamefully horrible that it definitely shows a lack of care and professionalism. I have always wondered why it was so vile when it could have been quality for the same price had somebody bothered to "think" a nutritional menu. I guess everything is motivated by profit and lack of accountability, it's just one flight and it gets forgotten.

1:04PM PDT on Apr 4, 2011

The airlines seem to be doing all they can to make traveling by plane as unappealing as possible; therefore, I avoid planes whenever I can. I much prefer taking the train. The food isn't much better, but I can bring my own on board with no fear of having it confiscated or being forced to dispose of it before boarding. Besides, train travel is MUCH less stressful and more comfortable, and people seem a lot nicer -- perhaps because they're less stressed and more comfortable!

8:23AM PST on Feb 14, 2011

I used to travel a lot with NorthWestern and KLM a few years back and I consider their food the best of all the other airlines I've tried. But these days I don't travel much by air (TSA puts me off) so it's not a big problem for me. Thanks for the information, though, because it's essential to be informed about health hazards!

10:27AM PDT on Jul 27, 2010

Thank you to everyone for sharing your in-flight wisdom and experience. I didn't even mention the collection of health code violations and general state of uncleanliness that exists because people are stashing their sandwich wrappers and used ketchup packets. Gross!

Eric Steinman

4:55PM PDT on Jul 25, 2010

Always prepared because I travel for business and leisure.
It somes from years of experience and being self-sufficient.

7:49PM PDT on Jul 23, 2010

That should have read "many in-country flights DON'T offer food service to begin with."

7:48PM PDT on Jul 23, 2010

I can't stomach airline food and many in-country flights offer food service to begin with. Mostly they offer packaged junk-food snacks that are typically very unhealthy. It's rare to see food service unless you're on an international flight.

That said, I never eat airline food. I always do one of three things, depending on time and duration of the flight - eat before and after arrival, bring my own food or purchase food from a reputable restaurant in the airport. The only thing I get on a plane is bottled water and/or a can of juice - which I drink either directly from the from the bottle/can or my own cup.

After reading this article I am quite glad that I don't eat airline food, as it's even more disgusting than I thought. *blech*

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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