What's the deal with airplane food? How in-flight dining went from Pan Am to a punchline

Last week, a Delta flight had to make an emergency landing after serving spoiled meals to travelers

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 8, 2024 2:15PM (EDT)

Interior view of a commercial passenger plane shows, in the foreground, a couple as they enjoy their meal next to a smiling elderly woman, while behind them, a flight attendant pours a glass of wine for a man who sits next to a couple who toast each other with full glasses, 1950s. (Frederic Lewis/Getty Images)
Interior view of a commercial passenger plane shows, in the foreground, a couple as they enjoy their meal next to a smiling elderly woman, while behind them, a flight attendant pours a glass of wine for a man who sits next to a couple who toast each other with full glasses, 1950s. (Frederic Lewis/Getty Images)

Last Tuesday, a Delta redeye flight took off from Detroit at around 11 p.m. When the plane’s 277 passengers went to sleep, they were likely expecting to wake up somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on their eight-hour, non-stop flight to Amsterdam. Instead, the plane made an emergency landing at New York’s Kennedy Airport “after reports that a portion of the Main Cabin in-flight meal service were spoiled.” 

Some travelers told CBS Detroit they bit into chicken that tasted “really sour,” while others reported spotting black mold on some of the pre-packaged meals. 

While it is unclear how many people actually ate the spoiled food, a spokesperson for the airline said in a statement that Delta would investigate the incident. “This is not the service Delta is known for and we sincerely apologize to our customers for the inconvenience and delay in travels,” they continued. In the week since, details about the exact food served on the flight have been slim (though one could make guesses based on the Delta menus posted on international flight forums, which include options like a brie sandwich and peppered chicken breast salad), however jokes about the fiasco abound. 

It’s not exactly a surprising turn. 

The diminishing quality of airplane food has been a punchline for decades now, especially among observational comics. George Carlin once famously said that “you only know it’s food because it comes in little individual packages marked ‘airline food,” a sentiment shared by Jerry Seinfeld who, during a 1992 episode of “Saturday Night Live,” opened a bit with the much-memed question: “What’s the deal with airplane food?” 

Even among the Reddit set, you’ll find thread after thread of disgruntled travelers likening their meal options to inflight school cafeteria food, mystery meat and all, but that wasn’t always the case.  So, how did we go from Pan Am's "Clipper Class" of the 1950s — where passengers were served meals that included lobster, caviar and fine wines — to the stale (or spoiled) box meals of today?

The descent actually starts with the beginning of the end of the American government’s control over commercial aviation. Prior to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, a pivotal piece of legislation that reduced government intervention over the industry, the Civil Aeronautics Board (or CAB) heavily regulated airlines. They largely controlled routes, schedules and fares, as well as overseeing safety within the sector. 

While this had its benefits, many travelers and politicians pushed to deregulate the airline industry due to the high costs and fares associated with the lack of inter-airline competition. A freer market approach, they argued, would lead to lower prices, more choices and improved services. 

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Spurred by the energy crisis of the early 1970s, as well as the strong buy-in of both President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy, the Airline Deregulation Act was passed in 1978 with bipartisan support, eventually phasing out the CAB’s regulatory powers. 

The legislation definitely accomplished some of what lawmakers envisioned; ticket prices did go down and it increased competition among airlines, leading to the advent of numerous new airlines, including low-cost carriers (LCCs) like Southwest. However, whether the services those airlines provided could be classified as “improved” is debatable. 

Before deregulation, airlines operated under a fixed pricing system — which meant they could offer more comprehensive services without worrying about having to undercut competitors’ prices. This was the era where in-flight dining mimicked restaurant dining in many ways: the meals were multi-course, often consisting of an appetizer, salad, entree and dessert, as well as alcohol pairings; meals were served on real china with linen napkins and cutlery; and hot meals were standard, even on domestic flights. 

However, once the industry was deregulated, airlines faced intense competition and many went into cost-cutting mode. Luxury meals were one of the first areas to be scaled back, while free meals were largely eliminated altogether on shorter flights. Simultaneously, low-cost carriers began shifting travelers’ expectations when it came to in-flight dining as they often only served shelf-stable snacks, like peanuts and cookies. 

Combine this with the environmental factors that impact our biological sense of taste when cruising 30,000 feet above sea-level — like reduced humidity and lower air pressure — and it stands to reason the experience would be lackluster in comparison to air travel just a few decades ago, even while some airlines have partnered with local chefs at their various hubs in recent years to create more enticing in-flight meals for longer hauls. 

As for Delta, the spoiled food situation of last week prompted a temporary change to their menu. As reported by Fortune, the airline only served pasta meals on international flights last Wednesday and Thursday as a cautionary measure. “We did adjust meal service on a few dozen flights as we worked with catering on reviewing quality assurance of meals,” a spokesperson told the publication. “Today, we are ramping up to our normal everyday service.” 



By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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