“It’s the same dog food in coach or first class. In first class it just looks nicer.” – An honest airline employee.

So you’re wedged into a tiny space traveling just below the speed of sound and miles above the ground in air that is too thin to breathe. The fact that anybody would expect a meal here sounds preposterous. Yet airlines started feeding passengers since the early days of air travel. We once expected to be fed on even the shortest of flights, and meals in the stratosphere can range from extravagant to inedible. Mostly, these days it’s more like…

Meals, what meals? Nobody serves them anymore or they make you pay. If you get a second bag of peanuts you’ve scored! Airline meals still exist and are usually part of the ticket on transoceanic flights. However the flights that don’t have meal service or have the buy-on-board options are getting longer and longer.

Once upon a time even domestic airlines competed on good catering, even in coach. Midwest Express and Kiwi Airlines were the most recent examples. Both are long dead. The great catering didn’t get more people on board because the only thing most short- and medium-haul passengers care about is spending as little money as possible. And to the airline, cost per passenger trumps everything. Saving a few cents multiplied by the thousands of meals a large carrier might have to provide every day can lead to huge cost savings.

Now, when you do get food, whether or not you actually want to eat what is put on the tray before you is another question altogether. Beyond the logistics issues, meals must be palatable to passengers from around the world, which explains why they are often so bland.

In the business- or first-class cabins you get many more options and the food starts tasting and looking like something you might want to eat. Here the airlines do compete with each other. There usually is a constant flow of liquor and snacks, but even in these cabins airlines are being forced to cut back.

Over the years I’ve had dreadful meals. Others have been comparable to fine dining. It’s pretty much a hit or miss proposition. I learned to love caviar when I worked for American. The most satisfying meals I’ve had were on long-haul flights to Europe or Asia, the best example being on Korean Airlines when I flew to Seoul. After two weeks of eating local cuisine, my German craving for protein kicked in big time so I ordered the filet. The attendant asked me how I would like my filet cooked. I requested medium-rare. To my utter shock and delight, my main course came with a perfectly cooked medium-rare filet. How they managed to do that in a warming oven I’ll never know. All these many years later, I still consider this my favorite meal. I’ve had transatlantic first-class meals that didn’t wow me as much as this business-class meal

Unfortunately I’ve had some awful ones as well. I was flying USAirways from Frankfurt to Philadelphia in coach once. Unlike my flight on Korean, I wanted something a bit lighter after spending the previous 10 days in the land of wurst and schnitzel. I requested the vegetarian pasta course. What was the salad that came with it? A green pasta salad! Somebody at the USAirways Frankfurt catering company obviously wasn’t thinking. At that point, a bag of pretzels from Southwest would have been much, MUCH better!

So yes, it can be dog-food awful, nonexistent, or sublime. It’s all a crap shoot based on where, when, and what cabin you are in. Bon Appetite!

For examples of the best and worst food in the air, take a look at airlinemeals.net.
One of the best airline industry bloggers bar none is Brett Snyder of The Cranky Flyer. Brett has a reviews of many airline meals.