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David Ross

Airline Food-The good, the bad and the ugly

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In January of 2016, I "retired" after 28 years of service for Horizon Air, a regional airline based in Seattle and the Sister carrier of Alaska Airlines.  I put retired in quotes as it was actually the result of a corporate restructure.  In any case, throughout my career I was on the inflight services department management team and for many years involved in the onboard catering.  Now mind you, we were and the company is today, a regional carrier that flew primarily turbo-prop airplanes and just a few jets during my time.  We didn't serve traditional hot meals in those days as our galleys weren't equipped with ovens, however, we did serve cold breakfasts, lunches and snacks and at times our food was actually better than what you'd find on other major carriers.

 

Back when I started as a Flight Attendant in 1988, we served cold snack baskets and often ran promotions.  I remember one summer when we offered a picnic basket of cold fried chicken, chips, an apple, a slice of apple pie from a bakery in Spokane and a small wide-mouth "Mickey's" beer. 

 

Well, as we know things have changed.  In the time since I left, Horizon is starting to introduce a small regional jet with first class and hot meal service.  The meals up front are basically the same meals one would find on Alaska Airlines first class.  And while the menus read creative, like Southwestern scrambled eggs, black beans, salsa and corn tortillas, we all know what reads delicious on an airline print menu isn't always what ends up on your tray table.

 

So let's have some fun here at eGullet and start a discussion of airline meals.  Share your stories of grand meals from back in the decades when you looked forward to airline travel, especially the meal.  (And I remember many a fine steak dinner served in coach on both Delta and United back in the 70's into the 80's).

 

And are you dining on fine food these days when you fly?  I regularly scan through sites dedicated to frequent flyers and I'm often impressed by the photos of first class meals on international long-haul routes served by Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, ANA, JAL and Swiss Airlines to name a few.  (And while Delta is improving on that front in their business class cabin internationally, United is trying with their new Polaris business product, American seems to lag behind).  Coach class throughout the world is of course a different story.

 

So I'll be working in the coming months on going through some of my archives to show you some of the things we served on the little regional carrier up in the Pacific Northwest.

 

 

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You bet!

 

It was mid-80's, and I was a young professor flying from Hartford to San Jose. I was upgraded to 1st. class because flight was overbooked (Imagine!). On the second leg from Chicago I was served crawfish etouffe and a bottle of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Since no one nearby was interested in wine, attendant left me the bottle! It was the best crawfish I ever had to this day! It paired so nicely with the wine...

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gfweb   

I fly way too much and eat the food on AA and DL regularly. It is widely variable. Occasionally its decent.  The biggest problem is overcooked meats and the problems of cooking several foods in one dish. Overseas flights are a notch better and a semi recent flight on BA had a truly good meal on one leg.

 

 

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gfweb   

I'd love to know the temps of airplane ovens. From the state of the veg and meat, I bet its about 170F

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I'll be checking in with some friends who are senior Flight Attendants at Alaska Airlines with some questions about their ovens and holdover temps. 

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Shelby   

I haven't flown for years and don't see myself doing so in the foreseeable future but I am loving this topic!

 

 

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I had some decent beef goulash on Lufthansa in economy class about eight years ago. I think the other choice was some kind of baked chicken, but it's hard to recall now.

 

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gfweb   

FWIW I have a complete collection of plane food photos for about 15 years.

 

 

Because I can.....OCD

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For some time, I had enough work travel to be in United's top tier of frequent flyers, meaning I almost always got upgraded to first class. 

This is no longer the case.  These days, I fly much less frequently and always in steerage.

Aside from the more comfortable seats, what I miss most about those days are the pre-departure beverage (something bubbly, preferably French, thank you :D) and the little bowls of hot nuts :x

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FauxPas   

I used to fly with Horizon and Alaska quite a bit and for the most part, I really enjoyed it. I loved many of the employees! They seemed more empowered than those at some other companies and they certainly helped me out a few times.  

 

I used to like the free local microbrews and wines served on the Horizon flights. Do they still do that? I'm more likely to fly in a floatplane over to Vancouver these days. 

 

A lot of my travel was between the US and Canada and around the US for work and wasn't all that interesting, though sometimes I could get an update to First Class on Alaska. I thought the food was often pretty decent there. I especially liked the First Class food on the early flights to Hawaii. I wish I could remember more details about them. I liked the pre-takeoff Mai Tai and the themed meals. I seem to recall a short rib dish that was really good. Their first flights to Miami were fun and Mexico as well. 

 

My fave domestic airline meals were probably in Business Class on the now defunct Canadian Airlines. I remember flying with them shortly before they merged with AC. I ordered vegetarian meals on occasion and I recall really tasty pasta dishes. The first time I sampled their after-dinner cheese tray and port selection, I was telling myself this was my favourite airline. Their airport lounges (Empress) were wonderful.

 

(I spent quite a bit of time in the Alaska lounge in Seattle, some good soup there, ha)

 

 

 

 

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liuzhou   
Posted (edited)

I once flew from Bangkok to London (and back)  courtesy of Bangladesh Airways (with a stop in Dhaka), It was the only flight I could get at very short notice. I was in first class. The food was curry. Thin watery curry. The same curry for every meal. It was revolting. And it's a long flight.

 

I was met by my daughter at Heathrow and she said that, as she had come to meet me, she hadn't had time to prepare any food, but perhaps I'd like to go out for a curry.

 

Have you ever seen a grown man weeping in an airport?


Edited by liuzhou typos (log)
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I have not flown since 2005.  That was on Lufthansa for a business trip and whatever the food was, it was not memorable one way or the other.

 

One story I have, though, and forgive me if I've told it here before, is the first time I flew to Europe.  The purpose of the visit was to work on a Roman British archeology dig.  I traveled with a college friend.  We were from Pennsylvania where the drinking age was 21.  The flight left from Kennedy airport in the enlightened state of New York.  Where the drinking age was 18.

 

We splurged on what at the time was a fantastic dinner with wines at the airport restaurant.  After lurching onto the airplane, which as memory serves was a charter flight, we were served another meal and further adult beverages.  Due to circumstances we did not get to sleep for over twenty four hours.

 

Ah to be young again.

 

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Duvel   
2 hours ago, liuzhou said:

Have you ever seen a grown man weeping in an airport?

 

Very often, but usually not at the prospect of a free meal :$ 

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JohnT   
Posted (edited)

My best airline food was on a flight from Papeete to Sydney on Air Tahiti Nui. This was quite a few years back, but it was superb for "cattle class".

 

My best meals sponsored by an airline was British Airways when the entire airline came to a halt due to a catering strike. I had just flown into London from Atlanta with no food on the plane and then was stuck in Heathrow, together with a few hundred thousand passengers from around the world. I and my delivery crew were each given a £10 food voucher by the BA enquiry desk. I looked at it and told the woman behind the desk that you could not even get a plate of fries for £10 in the airport restaurants, never mind a burger! She looked at me and my bleary eyed crew, asked where we had arrived from and when told, gave us a whole book of 50 £10 vouches and told us to enjoy ourselves. We did and nearly missed being allocated a hotel for the next week whilst the strike continued!

 

My worst airline meal was on our national carrier, SAA, on a flight from JFK to Johannesburg. Only after takeoff were the passengers informed that there was no food or drinks other than water for the flight, due to a catering strike, but that the airline crew had managed to obtaine tins of tuna and packets of biscuits for "snacks". It is around a 14 hour flight! There was just one problem. Due to US Homeland Security restrictions, no metal "sharps" were allowed on the aircraft and thus there was no means of opening the few hundred tuna cans! That was my last flight supporting our national carrier.


Edited by JohnT (log)
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JohnT   
19 hours ago, David Ross said:

In January of 2016, I "retired" after 28 years of service for Horizon Air, a regional airline based in Seattle and the Sister carrier of Alaska Airlines. . . . . . 

 

@David Ross did you know George Bagley, executive vice president of operations for Alaska Airlines (and Horizon)? He retired at the beginning of 2006.

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4 hours ago, JohnT said:

@David Ross did you know George Bagley, executive vice president of operations for Alaska Airlines (and Horizon)? He retired at the beginning of 2006.

Yes I knew George quite well during his time at Horizon and we worked together on a few different inflight service promotions. 

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I've always found that anything I've been able to pack is universally better than anything an airline can serve. I don't do cold dishes very often cooking at home so travel is a chance to stretch my legs a little in that direction. It's also permission to splurge a bit on expensive ingredients since a) no matter what I buy, it's still cheaper than paying for an upgrade and b) having something to look forward to makes the experience a little less intolerable.

 

If I'm just trying to put together something quick, I'll usually swing by a grocery store and pick up some nice cured meats (my first taste of Jamon Iberico de Bellota was on a flight), a piece of fancy cheese I've been eyeing for a while, some dried nuts and fruit, a bag of fancy potato chips and a piece of fruit for dessert. If I have a bit more time, I'll prepare something like a muffaletta sandwich or a marinated chickpea salad or cold somen noodles. 

 

 

 

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Well, I just remembered a very bad fish dish in United First Class about 1995.  It was first class on a United DC-10 from Portland to Chicago.  I was travelling on an airline employee pass and got bumped to first class.  Because I was the low guy on the meal list, I was served the halibut.  It was dry, stinky and the asparagus spears had obviously been sitting in that aluminum tray in the galley oven far too long.  I bet the asparagus started as nice, long, snappy stalks.  Yet it ended up really sad and wilted.  I think there was a warm hollandaise sauce which was surprisingly good and I don't think it had separated.  That's the airline meal geek I am, remembering a dish with that many details some 20 years later.........

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19 hours ago, FauxPas said:

I used to fly with Horizon and Alaska quite a bit and for the most part, I really enjoyed it. I loved many of the employees! They seemed more empowered than those at some other companies and they certainly helped me out a few times.  

 

I used to like the free local microbrews and wines served on the Horizon flights. Do they still do that? I'm more likely to fly in a floatplane over to Vancouver these days. 

 

A lot of my travel was between the US and Canada and around the US for work and wasn't all that interesting, though sometimes I could get an update to First Class on Alaska. I thought the food was often pretty decent there. I especially liked the First Class food on the early flights to Hawaii. I wish I could remember more details about them. I liked the pre-takeoff Mai Tai and the themed meals. I seem to recall a short rib dish that was really good. Their first flights to Miami were fun and Mexico as well. 

 

My fave domestic airline meals were probably in Business Class on the now defunct Canadian Airlines. I remember flying with them shortly before they merged with AC. I ordered vegetarian meals on occasion and I recall really tasty pasta dishes. The first time I sampled their after-dinner cheese tray and port selection, I was telling myself this was my favourite airline. Their airport lounges (Empress) were wonderful.

 

(I spent quite a bit of time in the Alaska lounge in Seattle, some good soup there, ha)

 

 

 

 

Yes, Horizon still serves complimentary Northwest Micro-Brews.  The wine is complimentary yet not exclusively Northwest.  I started at Horizon not long after they began partnering with Starbucks.  At that time, Starbuck's was this little Seattle coffee company and the craze with coffee hadn't yet begun.  Howard Shultz partnered with our CEO at the time and it was a natural fit for two Seattle companies to come together.  For years we were the only airline serving fresh-brewed Starbucks.  In fact, we also served complimentary Starbucks in the boarding areas.  And from the get go Starbucks had very strict brewing standards that each station had to follow.  And a footnote, the complimentary Starbucks and complimentary micro brews were and are exclusive to just the Horizon division of the company.

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MetsFan5   
Posted (edited)

I'd love to see pictures! My inlaws split their time between their home outside of Sacramento and their place on Lake Tahoe and Newark just started United non stop flights to Sacramento (thank God!) and we have first class tickets for thanksgiving week. 

   Also--EWR 's United terminal is unique in that every bar and bar/ restaurants requires the use of iPads to order everything. All the convenience shops are also self check out. 


Edited by MetsFan5 (log)
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23 hours ago, Shalmanese said:

I've always found that anything I've been able to pack is universally better than anything an airline can serve. I don't do cold dishes very often cooking at home so travel is a chance to stretch my legs a little in that direction. It's also permission to splurge a bit on expensive ingredients since a) no matter what I buy, it's still cheaper than paying for an upgrade and b) having something to look forward to makes the experience a little less intolerable.

 

If I'm just trying to put together something quick, I'll usually swing by a grocery store and pick up some nice cured meats (my first taste of Jamon Iberico de Bellota was on a flight), a piece of fancy cheese I've been eyeing for a while, some dried nuts and fruit, a bag of fancy potato chips and a piece of fruit for dessert. If I have a bit more time, I'll prepare something like a muffaletta sandwich or a marinated chickpea salad or cold somen noodles. 

That's exactly the kind of food I'd be taking along these days. 

 

I've always thought it was mind-boggling that airlines have all these guest chefs and endless committees to plan menus and wrangle over budgets.  I say in on many of those types of meetings at our regional airline.  I also was a member of an inflight food service trade organization for many years and travelled to meetings and conventions associated with the group.  Yet with all that focus and professionals with years of experience, I've always felt some basic knowledge of food and cooking was missing. 

 

 

Just using your examples, a nice cured meat and cheese platter would be far more contemporary and tasteful than a dried out puny chicken breast and over-cooked rice pilaf.  Yet the airlines never seem to get it.  And one would find that from a budget perspective it would be more cost effective.  And of course, it's impossible to muck up a cheese platter and cured meats, or a cold ramen salad, through the rigors of catering facilities, transport to the aircraft and onboard service. 

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gfweb   

I'm amazed that famous chefs would allow their names to be put on some of this stuff. They can't be paid that much.

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I've always thought the same thing.  Alaska hired Tom Douglas about two years ago. I think the thought was to hire one of Seattle's most visible Chefs with Seattle's home airline. They tend to always push the marketing envelope over there, sometimes ahead of what is the best thing to do.  But I've heard good reviews on most of his dishes.  One of my friends is at the top tier of their frequent flyer program and he tells me other than a baked potato dish they put out that was stuffed with some braised short ribs, the Douglas menu items have been pretty good.

 

Looking at their website, in coach they currently offer two Tom Douglas menu items.  I envision someone in a cubicle in Seattle writing these menu descriptions.....

 

Miso Glazed Chicken and Rice Bowl for $8

"We've topped chicken with a Hawaiian-inspired sweet and savory sauce and paired it with scrambled eggs and steamed rice for an island-style breakfast."

 

Turkey Sandwich with Espresso for $8-

"Roast turkey, peppery arugula and smooth provolone meet up in a soft slightly sweet bun made memorable with espresso mayo-delivering a toasty-smoky flavor and a nod to the Seattle coffee scene."

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I fly Alaska often and sometimes the flights are actually serviced by Horizon. I don't remember any free beer, though. :(

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gfweb   
Posted (edited)

The very worst meals seem to be on Hawaii flights...as well as the very worst planes on UA and AA at least.  Its as though the airline figures that there's a lot of freq flyer miles being used to pay for tix and, well,...screw em. 

 

 


Edited by gfweb (log)
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