Airline food shows a growing divide between premium and economy class

Singapore Airline Food 17Hollis JohnsonA meal for a Singapore Airlines flight.

Aeroplane food is often disgusting. After paying hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for a flight, passengers are served sad trays of rubbery chicken, powdered mashed potatoes, and tiny iceberg salads with ranch dressing.

Now there’s a growing movement from US airlines to do better  — for first class and business passengers, at least.

When American Airlines recently launched a 15-hour direct flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, it also debuted a new menu. Flight attendants offer first-class passengers complimentary glasses of 2010 Penfolds Grange Shiraz (normally $US850 per bottle) and roasted sirloin steak with red wine sauce.

Travellers in the economy cabin are still only treated to peanuts (They will, however, get complimentary spirits or wraps and chips on coast-to-coast flights starting May 1).

The improvements in first and business class have more to do with the economics of the airline industry than they do with a desire to provide better service, Richard Foss, culinary historian and author of “Food in the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies,” tells Business Insider.

Foss has studied the history of airline food for over a decade, from the glory days in the ’70s when airlines served lobster to today’s inflight tuna sandwiches. Here’s a look at that history, and how airlines are trying to bring back the golden age of airline dining for high-paying passengers.

When planes first became a more common way to travel in the 1930s, there wasn't a distinction between first and economy class. Inflight dining on US airlines often included free sandwiches, a simple meal to comfort passengers on turbulent flights.

Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images
An American Airlines flight attendant serves sandwich and coffee to a passenger, circa 1935.

As flight technology improved and planes grew larger after World War II, cabins became more comfortable and meal selections improved, Foss says.

Lufthansa Photo Archive
An inflight chef serves passengers on a flight by German airline Lufthansa, circa 1958.

The meals were often extravagant, because the planes were smaller (and thus easier to serve), and there was only one flight class.

Courtesy of Richard Foss
Charcuterie aboard SASMuseet's plane, circa 1950s

Around 1950, airlines created separate first and economy classes, because they realised they could charge more for the better dining experience. This was still a challenge for the crew, however, because the meals needed to be prepared separately in two different kitchens, Foss says.

Courtesy of Richard Foss
A dessert cart aboard a Western Airlines flight, circa 1950s

Airlines shifted from fresh to frozen food starting in the early 1950s. This helped cut down on waste and allowed attendants to serve larger planes in less time. Pan Am flights laid out white table cloths and hors d'ouevre trays 'cooked in five-minute ovens,' as noted in this 1958 commercial.

Up until 1978, laws required that every US airline charge the same price for identical routes. Airlines needed a way to differentiate themselves from the competition, and high-quality cuisine in economy and first class was a way to do that.

Air New Zealand Archive
An Air New Zealand flight in the 1960s.

Even in economy, laws dictated that passengers received a choice of an entree, two veggies, a salad, a dessert, and a cocktail.

The 1960s and '70s were the best time for airline dining for economy class passengers both in the US and abroad, Foss says.

A flight attendant serves a fresh water lobster, circa 1960s.

After the 1978 deregulation and with the rising democratization of air travel, many airlines offered simpler meals or removed them from economy class. First class, meanwhile, still got reasonably good meals.

Siegfried Himmer/Lufthansa Photo Archive
A Boeing first class flight, circa 1975.

As planes got bigger and faster, it became nearly impossible to serve an entire plane a gourmet meal with multiple courses. The airlines launched frequent flyer programs in the '80s to build customer loyalty, despite declining service standards. The quality disparity between economy and first-class meals began to widen.

Ingo Wagner/Lufthansa Photo Archive
A business class meal on a Lufthansa flight in 1998.

Today, inflight cooking technology has never been better. We know more about how to freeze and re-heat tasty meals than ever before, Foss says. The non-existent or low-quality meals in economy are mostly a strategy to persuade passengers to pay more.

A chef prepares a meal for a Singapore Airlines flight.

The quality of meals in first and business class continues to improve -- as a way to entice people to upgrade from their economy seats, Foss says.

Sinapore Airlines (pictured above), for example, invests around $US500 million per year in its in-flight dining, more than $US16 million of which goes toward their wine program.

Business travellers will also often upgrade their seats with frequent flyer points that could otherwise be used for free travel. And airlines end up making out on the deal: The seat would be empty anyway, and a plane ticket costs a lot more than a rib-eye.

A Singapore Airlines meal.

As BI's Ashley Lutz notes, coach flyers are generally much less critical to an airline's bottom line than higher-paying customers.

For United Airlines, 85% of customers fly less than once a year, and they account for close to 50% of revenue, United president Scott Kirby told analysts in October. This means that the other 15% -- frequent flyers -- account for about half of the company's income.

These numbers are similar at other airlines, so it makes sense for the companies to create a wide disparity between the two types of customers, while keeping first-class passengers happy.

In late 2016, American Airlines invested more than $US2 billion in 'the customer experience,' completely redesigning its meal service in first class cabins. Depending on the duration of the flight, passengers now enjoy a marinated cheese antipasto, fresh seasonal greens with pepper cream dressing, assorted gourmet breads, chilled prawns with an aioli tarragon sauce, and an ice cream sundae -- all at no extra charge.

American Airlines/Facebook

Source: LA magazine

Other airlines are enlisting the help of well-known chefs to craft their first class menus. Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal designs meals on British Airway flights, with dishes like mackerel rillettes with sourdough croutes.

British Airways/Facebook

For the rest of us sitting in the economy cabin, our trays still look like a middle school lunch -- if we're even offered one at all.

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