eating on airplanes

Airline food: there’s a science to it

In January, Singapore Airlines invited me to visit the building near San Francisco International Airport where the airline catering company called the Flying Food Group prepares meals for flights heading from San Francisco to Seoul, Hong Kong and, I believe, Singapore.

The occasion: the dishes on the menu for the three month cycle beginning in March were being presented for review.

This wasn’t just an “Oh, that looks nice,” session. As usual, Singapore Airlines had given the Flying Food Group a menu drawn from the airline’s library of more than 15,000 thousand menus and now the catering company was being tested on everything from preparation and taste to the plating and the weight – down to the gram – of each item.

Every airline has a slightly different method for how it tackles this task, but at Singapore Airlines signing off on the quarterly menu involves a day (or two) of tasting, photographing and discussing the details of each and every dish. And once a dish is approved, it is photographed for the “plating guide” given to crew members so they can make sure the meal served on board the airplane looks exactly like the dish that was approved on the ground.

Making food on the ground that will look and taste great in the air is a challenge – and a science. Especially when the cooking process involves cooking the food 60% through, then dropping the temperature to just above freezing before loading it onto carts with dry ice and sending it off to the planes.

The airline spends about $500 million a year on food and views it as passenger sustenance, of course, but also as in-flight entertainment. “When you operate the world’s longest duration flight [From New York to Singapore is about a 19 hour flight] it’s a necessity,” said James Boyd, an airline spokesperson. He also said the airline knows meal time on an airplane is an opportunity to create “credible service interacting moments,” something I can attest to as I recently flew just about around the world on Singapore Airlines: JFK – FRANFURT – SINGAPORE-TOKYO-LOS ANGELES.

As I said, each airline meal program is a bit different and on Sunday, the New York Times published a very detailed article on the subject. In Mile High Grub: Can Airline Food be Tasty?, Jad Mouawad outlines how airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France, Korean Air, Emirates Airlines and, yes, Singapore Airlines approach the task.