Eating In Midair

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Before booking the flights for our trip, there was a lot of researching various airline options. Did they have individual entertainment systems? How much leg room was there? Was the service reputedly dreadful when Trip Advisor was consulted? Did they have disproportionate numbers of (eep!) mechanical issues? Would there be any of the budget left to spend on the rest of the trip if all of the above were addressed, and did it really matter, given that air travel is at best, reduced to an vague inconvenience that can hopefully be slept through?

Food on planes was not perhaps a major consideration (especially after that shopping list of other factors), probably owing to my fairly firm conviction that it is generally, at best, inoffensive and, at worst, inedible (and also an inconvenience that can hopefully be slept through, and definitely not woken for meals).

Eye mask: Annabel Trends via Mini Travel Mates

There’s something very reminiscent of school about air travel – you get told what you can do, where you can be, when you can eat. You get in trouble if you make inappropriate jokes. The food, also, perhaps has certain similarities with the kind of thing I imagine finding in boarding school and that requires the existence of tuck boxes and the occurrence of midnight feasts. Sorry, accidentally fell into an Enid Blyton book. Back now.

Picture: Koadmunkee on Flickr (not exactly what we had, but it gives an idea - and flying is quite enough without starting getting out the camera, as far as I'm concerned...)
And yet, so many airlines are convinced that the way to deliver “superior customer experiences” (because air travel is also riddled with management-speak, generally in PA announcements at volumes able to be clearly heard by those experiencing temporary deafness, and able to cause temporary deafness in those who previously didn’t have it) is to overdo the food. They hire name-brand chefs to consult on the menu, and everything comes with a range of salty, fatty and wholly unnecessary sauces which, despite widely varying descriptions, taste like they came out of exactly the same tin.

Whatever you do with the food, the physical limitations of being 35,000 feet above the ground are likely to mean that simpler is better. Gastronomic experiences are better savoured comfortably in a restaurant rather than delivered, re-heated, in a compartmentalised tray. Not that I’m biased, or anything.

What I hadn’t expected then, was that airline food could actually be... tasty. Singapore Airlines, all the way from Sydney to Rome, successfully proved me wrong. The food for those of us not at the pointy end was better than most of what I’ve come across in my (all too few) trips in business class with (ahem) other airlines. The menu actually described what was available (because deciding solely on the basis of “chicken or beef” without knowing any other information rarely is an indicator of an enjoyable meal ahead), and it. On these flights, the (barely audible) rattle of a trolley prompted a thought that there might be something quite enjoyable. The Other Penguin and I actually swapped half-way through our dinners to try out the other option, which proved equally tasty. The chicken fried rice served for supper has particularly stayed in mind as just the right sort of thing for the time of day and the circumstances. And, while I still firmly believe that an omelette has no place whatsoever where a tray table is involved, the Singapore Airlines ones bore a resemblance to actual eggs which was entirely new for meals in mid-air.

Picture: Singapore Airlines omelette by Koadmunkee on Flickr

And Swiss Air, which I’d expected to be the budget-and-efficient leg of the travels, also turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It took the approach I am convinced all airlines (or at least, all airlines that aren’t Singapore Airlines) should subscribe to, which is the simpler the better. Also, Swiss Air had Swiss chocolate. And when a transfer through Zurich involves: Arrive. Hurry though terminal to bus, glancing briefly at snow-capped mountains. Do not collect $200 or any chocolate., this is resoundingly a plus. And it had sandwiches, fresh ones with warm bread rolls and pastrami. Tasty enough that even pickles weren’t offputting.

Picture: Roo Reynolds on Flickr

The other flights on the trip were more the sort of a vague inconvenience to be slept through. Continental on the trans-Atlantic leg was unremarkable, with an unsurprising emphasis on the pre-packaged. Continental across the US was remarkable solely for being, in both penguins’ view, a far longer flight than appropriate for having a paid food service. On a JetStar flight for a couple of hours, it’s a good way to not be overcharged for what you don’t need. On a five and a half hour flight from New York to LA, it’s not much fun. Even less fun when you discover how bad the options to get anything to eat are at Terminal 2 at LAX.

Air New Zealand continued the theme of vague inconvenience (thankfully, it also continued to be slept through, although only because the Other Penguin stopped flight attendants from trying to wake me up for beverage service). And Air New Zealand was remarkable only for being so much less impressive than its reputation, and my previous flights with them, had prompted me to expect. Both in terms of food and service, it didn’t hold a candle to Singapore Airlines and was well below the how-does-it-compare-to-a-Lean-Cuisine? test which is how I tend to think of airline food.

If anybody’s still with this post by now, you’ve probably got a pretty good feeling of how flying from New York to Sydney feels. I’m sorry I couldn’t bring you some chicken rice for the journey, but perhaps it’ll at least help send you to sleep! Would love to hear about any airline experiences you’ve had, and who you think makes eating in mid-air a bit less of a chore.

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