The Culinary Diplomat rates airplane food

Ok, you saw the title and were either disturbed or intrigued. Airplane food? Really? We all know it certainly has no reputation as a gourmet walk in the clouds. Why bother rating dishes that barely resemble the international delicacies they pretend to be?

As a frequent international traveler, airplane food is an inevitability. Over the years, I’ve flown many airlines and many routes. I’ve done long hauls and short flights. I’ve had the quick western European flight that somehow manages to serve a full meal in economy class, or at least a mayonnaise-heavy sandwich (that I usually skip). I’ve been fortunate to have tried a range of business class fare; I can’t tell you how many overcooked attempts at steak I’ve had (I’m looking at you, US flagged carriers). As nicely as they sometimes are presented, I’ve yet to find one that wasn’t tough or cooked through any less than well well done (not a typographical error). What I’ve rarely done is purchased airplane meals (excepting a snack box or rare salad on an American flagged carrier) frequently enough to rate purchased airline food.

Whether a frequent or just holiday traveler, I find it helpful to know which airlines make a better choice when planning my next trip. I can’t say that I’ve ever booked a ticket solely based on food reputation, but I have definitely chosen code shares or partner airlines of frequent flier programs based – in part – on food perks. If nothing else, I have a few airlines I avoid because of bad food.

I caution that my rating system is not scientific or systematic; furthermore, it’s more like a categorization or ranking. I’ve had great experiences on some airlines through whom I’ve only flown once, so clearly, I could get it wrong. Also, I’m limiting my ‘ratings’ to experiences from the past 10 years, which means they may or may not accurately reflect changes made for airlines I haven’t flown in awhile. can’t promise that all of my ratings are based on current information. Also, I’m grouping them by experience, so some airlines may appear in more than one category, depending on routes and class of service.

The creme de la creme:

Best overall food (business and economy): Turkish Airlines

Best business class food and beverages: Austrian Airlines (Vienna to Washington, not vice versa) and Turkish Airlines

Best business class beverages: Austrian Airlines (Vienna to Washington)

Best snacks/small bites: Jet Blue and Swissair

Honorable Mention: South African Airways (Business class)

The top two listed are Turkish and Austrian Airlines; it’s no coincidence that they share a caterer – DO&CO, an Austrian company purchased by a Turkish conglomerate. Their food tends to be more creatively conceived and offer more variety than the other airlines. In other words, their meals are more like meals I would actually order at a restaurant.

I always look forward to flying Turkish Airlines. Their economy class food is far superior to many airlines’ business class food. I’ve only flown Turkish business class for two separate legs. The food on my flight from the States to Istanbul was the best I’ve had. I love Turkish food and most Mediterranean mezze, so I became so enamored with my mezze platter that I didn’t realize it was my starter. I can’t even remember the entree anymore, because the mezze were so good. Regardless, on my other Turkish flights, I’ve never had a bad bite or bad meal. Economy class appetizer/sides recently included smoked salmon with multigrain crackers and cream cheese and shepherd’s salad with white cheese. Though the airline standard chicken and pasta are part of Turkish’s repertioire, the execution is more like restaurant food and less like the other airlines.

My disclaimer is that I flew Austrian airlines only once and in business class. But flying out of Vienna was a phenomenal experience. When I am free to order as many or few appetizers or desserts as I’d like, it makes me happy. Austrian DO&CO had an adorable trolley for each, and my main course was exceptional. I also appreciated their beverage. Business class had a selection of no less than four red wines and four white wines, prominently featuring Austrian specialties. Perhaps my favorite discovery was their espresso machine. I might have had both a Bailey’s latte and a Gran Marnier latte. So, understandably, I was wired when the nine hour flight concluded.

South African Airlines’ business class was another great experience. Fresh bread, a variety of options, and consistent execution made me a fan – and made 19 hour flights a survivable (dare I say enjoyable) experience. If only my luggage had made it….

Emirates Airlines also deserves inclusion in the top tier. Though I envy those who have had their long-haul business class experience, I’ve only flown economy. Their economy class food was memorable. It was delicious, and they still managed to offer wine, which I did not expect for a flight originating from the Arabian peninsula.

Middle of the road:

Top of this list: The European carriers (Air France, Lufthansa)

Newcomer to the middle list: United Airlines

Air France beats out Lufthansa in terms of food, though Lufthansa’s service is noteworthy. Of course, Air France has the edge with French wines and complimentary champagne and pear liqueur (which, incidentally, taste pretty well together as a cocktail). Business class food is fairly standard and unimpressive except for the cheese, but their economy class food is pretty decent. And at least within Europe, you get Brie. I approve.

Lufthansa’s long-haul, business class food used to be really good; I think it has gone downhill, and they offer less selection. It’s too bad the country’s post-2009 austerity measures seemed to spill over onto business class. Their airport lounges, also, suffer from declining attention to food. The United lounge in Frankfurt has better food than the Lufthansa lounges in Frankfurt – I call that a sign! Economy class food, as well, is not at all memorable. My one bright spot for Lufthansa’s food is the short-haul business class offering – a full meal served without plastic, no matter how short the flight. The meal may not offer a choice of entree, but you’re thankful you’re offered a decent meal on a flight just over one hour in duration. In fact, the best airplane breakfast I had was on a three hour flight from Frankfurt – a delicious mushroom and cheese omelet with a balanced range of sides that included fresh fruit…and brie. More recently, I found myself bumped up to short-haul business class on Lufthansa, and my chicken Caesar salad was nice, if not small; even better was the dessert. A rum ball (round, rum and chocolate-accented cake ball) in a cocoa-dusted creme Anglaise sauce with a single black cherry was impressive for airplane food.

British Airways has been ok in my experience, but nothing to write home about. Every short haul flight has a mayonnaise-heavy sandwich like the other European carriers. I recently had a decent chicken curry though, and they have more unique Economy class desserts like packaged chocolate mousse cups.

I’ve noticed that United Airlines has stepped up its food game both for economy class and business class. Though the tough beef filet and dry chicken haven’t gone away completely, I have enjoyed my more recent business class travels and United’s attempt to offer more regional dishes on their routes. I always enjoy the cheese plates, the quality of which has improved. I am, however, thoroughly tired of all US carriers’ ice cream sundaes. I believe a sundae is a cop-out dessert. Do you order sundaes at a fine dining establishment? I think that technology has evolved enough to offer better desserts in business class than economy (I once asked for the economy class’s sad apple cake because I couldn’t take another ice cream sundae!). Are they delicious and customizable? Yes! But why not add a brownie or warm cake or something to it to up the ante?

Pack your own meal or buy at the airport:

Avianca and other Latin carriers.
Avianca does offer quantity, but not quality. I found their food to be a bit bland on multiple flights. A few other Latin American carriers are great with meal offers on short flights, but they’ve all been bland to me.

Most U.S.–flagged carriers.

American Airlines routes to and from Latin America: I’ve found their food has gone increasingly downhill. The only perk is that AA – at least as of 2014 – still offered complimentary wine and beer in economy class, which most other US carriers have eliminated. Business class food was ‘meh’ and the economy class food has continued to be salty pastas and chickens that wish they were Stouffer’s Lean Cuisines. Other U.S. carriers have eliminated the complimentary wine and beer. I’m fine to go without, but really? You could mask the iffy food by offering booze without added costs.

Bangkok Airways: I’m sure some Thai locals appreciated the use of local flavors, but I definitely picked around my dishes, and not simply because they contain pork, to which I have an irrational aversion. I tend to shy away from mystery meat in general, and on a plane in particular. I recall very distinct, gamey animal smells coming from the foods (pork and fish, mostly). Which is not something that sparks an appetite, especially when you know you’re landing in heavy heat and humidity. I give it an A for uniqueness, but if all the ingredients are a uniform color and it smells odd, I’m not going to do more than pick at it.

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