Food service

Meals and beverages served by airlines on board an aircraft in flight.

Airline Food

Although airline food quality has often been the butt of jokes, most airlines continue to strive for quality in the meals they provide to passengers. The prevailing view of U.S. domestic airline food is hardly complimentary, but two airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Midwest Express, are noted for their cuisine. Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Japan Air Lines are also known for quality food in all classes of service. First Nations Air, serving the Inuits’ Nunavut territory in Canada, also has become recognized for its meal service, notably its salmon dinners.

On Midwest Express, a regional carrier with hubs in Milwaukee and Omaha, meals are served on china with linen napkins. Every meal ends with complimentary wine or champagne. On some flights, chocolate chip cookies are baked on board. Midwest Express spends more than twice the per-meal industry average on food services, and the extra effort is evident.

Between 1995 and 2000, the amount spent on food service by an average airline declined by 15 to 20 percent. An economy-class meal cost an average of $4.81 in the year 2000. Midwest Express spent an average of $10.05. Amounts spent on food service among other U.S. carriers ranged from $8.44 per passenger by American Airlines to $.26 per passenger on Southwest Airlines, which serves nothing but light snacks. Food service for business- and first-class passengers can be considerably more expensive, with a meal, including beverages, sometimes costing more than $30. Singapore Air spends up to $45 per passenger on its first-class food and beverage service.

Midwest Express

Midwest Express was ranked during 1998 and 1999 as the number-one U.S. passenger air carrier in the Zagat Airline Survey, which compiled the opinions of 31,500 frequent fliers. The Zagat Airline Survey rates seventy airlines for their comfort, service, and food on its signature thirty-point scale. In the 1999 Zagat Airline Survey, Midwest Express ranked first in all three categories. Midwest Express was given high marks for its food and service, with the only complaint being that the airline did not fly to enough destinations. Midwest Express not only offers excellent meal service but also provides first-class seat size to all passengers at coach-seat fares.

Midwest Express has been expanding, a fact illustrated by its announcement, in April of 2000, of a one-half-billion-dollar purchase order for new 717-series jets from Boeing. The deal represented twenty new aircraft, with options on twenty to thirty more. This single deal almost doubled the size of the Midwest Express fleet. By 2001, Midwest Express and its commuter partner, Skyway Airlines, were responsible for 37 percent of the passenger traffic at Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport.

International Airlines

Food quality has long been a concern on several airlines outside the United States. Israel’s El Al, for example, hired special consultants to improve its food, adopting a regional Mediterranean style. The airline maintains thirteen kitchens along its routes, which serve roughly 25,000 portions per day. A typical new-style El Al menu consists of Mediterranean appetizers with smoked salmon, roasted oregano-scented spring chicken with couscous, or lasagna Bolognaise with olives and basil, and fresh fruit pie.

Major airlines serve a wide variety of special-order meals, including kosher, vegetarian, Hindu, Muslim, low-fat, gluten-free, peanut-free and lactose-free options. Many airlines also offer so-called bland meals, containing no spices or seasonings, which are designed for people with allergies. Swissair offers a children’s meal served in a small briefcase that includes games and snacks.


Most airline food is provided not by the carriers themselves, but by independent contractors, such as LSG Skychefs, Host Marriott Services, and Dobbs International. In 1999, LSG Skychefs, which operates 210 kitchens, generated $2.7 billion in sales as it prepared food for 260 airlines. Marriott served 200 carriers and generated $1.2 billion in sales, and Dobbs served 100 airlines and generated $890 million.

Because food service is so important to passengers and because airlines serve 200,000 meals and snacks daily, airlines and airline food caterers give a great deal of consideration, evaluation, and planning into the meals they serve. Airlines receive more comments about the food on flights than about any other aspect of air travel, and the major complaints come when no meal at all is served on a flight.

In 1999, American Airlines launched its Flagship Service menu on all first- and business-class transcontinental flights, with menu items created by four noted chefs from across the United States. At about the same time, Swissair introduced its natural gourmet menu, created from all-natural, fresh foods that are easy to digest. Swissair uses only organically grown foods, and its meats and poultry are fed on natural grains and are free from chemicals or additives. The idea of adopting organic foods came from the airline’s international passengers, who are extremely health-conscious and aware of their fat and protein intake. Also contributing to Swissair’s move was an increasing trend toward more natural, environmentally friendly choices in food.

Passengers who sample Swissair’s natural-gourmet menu might dine on salmon trout with wild garlic sauce, mixed rice with spelt, or sautéed veal with chanterelles and chives. Because Swissair has always emphasized Swiss national products in its cuisine, there are, of course, Swiss chocolates. Swissair’s food service subsidiary, Gate Gourmet, supplies meals not only for the Swiss carrier but also for other airlines around the world, including Qantas in Australia. Gate Gourmet produces 48,000 meals per day for seventy carriers. Its bakery in Zurich makes 75,000 buns, croissants, pies, cakes, and other baked goods daily.

In December, 2000, Northwest Airlines and Food & Wine magazine initiated a partnership to collaborate on a selection of wine and champagne for Northwest’s domestic first class and international business class. Northwest also expanded its on-board wine selection, acquiring its own small wine cellar offering eighteen varieties of wine.

Northwest Airlines, perhaps taking a cue from Midwest Express, also upgraded its food service. Recent new entrées introduced in Northwest’s World Business Class include beef tenderloin with smoked pepper sauce, cheese-potato soufflé and squash medley, and oven-roasted chicken with wild mushroom sauce and blue cheese tortellini. Northwest hired some of the best-known chefs in restaurants along its routes to create the new entrées.

In 2001, Las Vegas-based National Airlines became the world’s first airline to use a revolutionary in-flight beverage cart that provides faster customer service while reducing the company’s costs. The beverage cart, developed by Sterling Beverage Systems, uses the postmix technology commonplace in restaurants, but which had not been adopted in the airline industry. The Sterling cart was also expected to reduce airline costs, because less fuel is burned due to decreased cabin weight.

A Professorship of Airline Food

“Airline food is often a subject of ridicule, but meals in the sky are no laughing matter,” according to Peter Jones, who, during 2001, was appointed as the world’s first professor of airline food. Jones holds the appointment, which was funded by the International Flight Catering Association (IFCA), a group linking the several organizations that are involved in the airline-food business, at the University of Surrey in Guildford, Great Britain.

The appointment demonstrates the highly sophisticated business that airline catering has become. The daily delivery of hundreds of thousands of meals to airline passengers requires both culinary and logistical skill. The IFCA’s intent is to train people who will continue to improve standards.

Despite these improvements, however, passengers should not have unrealistic expectations of airline food. Passengers may not always appreciate how much effort goes into the making of an airline meal. In the high-altitude environment of airline flight, even the most delicately prepared food is affected in taste, texture, and consistency. Meals must be prepared hours in advance, transported to the aircraft, and served in confined conditions with a minimum of equipment. Food served on airline flights has been kept at precisely controlled temperatures for hours and subjected to a barrage of bacteriological and quality control checks.

Adding to the complexity, airline crew also has its own food, often with different dishes for the captain and flight attendants. On several airlines, most notably the Asian carriers, crew meals vary according to the rank of each person eating them.

Computers are increasingly allowing airlines to personalize service. In a few years, passengers will be able to reserve their meals from a menu, as they do in restaurants.


  • Bridges, Linda. “No Pie in the Sky.” National Review 46 (June 13, 1994): 72. A wry review of airline food from a passenger’s point of view.
  • Cooke, Kieran. “The Appointment of the World’s First Professor of Airline Food.” Financial Times, January 23, 2001, 19. An article describing the airline food industry’s establishment of an academic chair and an institute for airline cuisine at an English university.
  • Dulen, Jacqueline. “Flights of Fancy.” Restaurants and Institutions 109, no. 20 (August 1, 1999): 14. An article detailing the logistical problems that airlines face in serving many thousands of meals daily on complex schedules.
  • Holcomb, Henry J. “Midwest Express Tops National Airline Survey.” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 21, 2001, n.p. An account of Midwest Express’s number-one rating for food quality and service in the Zagat survey.
  • “Midwest Express Still Number One with Frequent Fliers.” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, March 21, 2001, p. D6. A view of Midwest Express’s business prospects from Milwaukee, its primary hub.
  • Sheridan, Margaret. “Institutional Food Service.” Restaurants and Institutions 109, no. 25 (September 15, 1999): 100. A description of the scope and complexity of airline food services.

Air carriers

Airline industry, U.S.

American Airlines

Flight attendants

Northwest Airlines


Singapore Airlines


Early airlines offered their passengers simple snacks that could be served without much preparation, since early commercial planes were not able to offer facilities to heat and cool food.

(Hulton Archive)