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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Please Place Your Tray in the Upright and Locked Position

©2015 Chris Terrell
We’ve heard it before: “air travel ain’t what it used to be.”  This appears to be especially true when it comes to airline food. It gets worse and worse, assuming you get anything at all.   

But are we expecting too much from the airlines when it comes to food? They are constrained by weight and space and so don't have a lot to work with. There’s also the issue of heat. One can’t exactly sauté mushrooms on an open gas stove in a Boeing 767. Even so, the food could be better.

Of course, it wasn’t always so. I’m old enough to remember the days when even in coach (a/k/a “economy class”), the stewardess (dated myself!) would serve lunch or dinner with real silverware and linen napkins. And she did so with a smile on her face and the kind of attention that you sometimes get in business class on a transatlantic flight. Why? Because out of the 160 seats on that Boeing 727 from New York to Miami, only 120 of the seats were occupied thanks to regulation.

In the early to mid-70s when I began my flying career, airlines were regulated by the federal Civil Aeronautics Board (“CAB”). Since 1938, the CAB had regulated all domestic interstate air routes as a public utility. The CAB set the fares, routes, and schedules. The CAB also was obligated to ensure that the airlines had a reasonable rate of return. In other words, the airlines were guaranteed a profit, albeit not a big one, but a profit nonetheless. This meant that Eastern Airlines could afford serving lunch with silverware in a less-than-full airplane.

In 1978, this all came crashing down with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act. This law abolished the CAB and removed government control over fares, routes, and market entry. The goal was to increase competition, which would mean lower prices for consumers. Believe it or not, the law actually worked. After adjusting for inflation, it is generally cheaper to fly today than it was in the 1970s. (I'm not sure about the competition part because we have about the same number of airlines as we did in 1978.) Of course, cheaper fares mean more people flying. And therein lies the rub when it comes to airline food. With increased competition and no guaranteed profits, the airlines have had to cut costs. And the first thing out the window was the semi-decent food. 

These days we're lucky if we can get a diminutive package of pretzels or peanuts (Southwest may be the only airline left that offers both.) About the only time any of us will get a meal on plane, much less a decent one, is on an international flight.

But at least it sometimes gets interesting. 

Several years ago, I was on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa, when breakfast arrived at hour 13 of a 15 and a half hour flight. To this day, I have no idea what I was served. It was some kind of orange, yam-like thing.  I also have no idea why it was breakfast food. I guess it made sense because we were flying to South Africa. (The food on the return flight was much more "American.") 

But perhaps the best example of food following the route was an Air France flight I took from Atlanta to Paris. Even though we were in economy, the flight attendants walked up and down the aisles with large baskets full of french bread. Later in the evening, I walked to the back for another glass of French wine. I pointed at the bottle on the drink cart, and the female flight attendant, without saying a word, and with a classic Gallic  shrug, told me “sure.” Vive La France!

What I find interesting is that, as the quality of airline food has declined and essentially disappeared, the quality of food in airports has increased, especially in terms of variety. I’ve had great wine and food at a wine bar in Dallas’s Love Field; a really good Cuban meal at the airport in Miami; and my home airport in Birmingham now has some pretty good barbecue. Hope springs eternal.

The only downside is that, because there’s no food service on airlines anymore, people bring food onto the airplane. This has created a different set of problems. Have you ever sat next to a fellow passenger with an order of garlic rice and falafel? 

But oh well, air travel is still pretty amazing. We can now travel distances in hours that took our ancestors weeks, if not months. As the comedian Louis C.K. once said, “You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky!” Good point. So, maybe we should all just relax, wait until we land to get a good meal, and leave the falafel at home.

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