These meals vary widely in quality and quantity across different airline companies and classes of travel. They range from a simple beverage in short-haul economy class to a seven-course gourmet meal in long-haul first class.
The type of food varies depending upon the airline company and class of travel. Meals may be served on one tray or in multiple courses with no tray and with a tablecloth, metal cutlery, and glassware (generally in first and business classes).
Caterers usually produce alternative meals for passengers with restrictive diets. These must usually be ordered in advance, sometimes when buying the ticket. Some of the more common examples include:
- Cultural diets, such as French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Indian style.
- Infant and baby meals. Some airlines also offer children's meals, containing foods that children will enjoy such as baked beans, mini-hamburgers and hot dogs.
- Medical diets, including low/high fiber, low fat/cholesterol, diabetic, peanut free, non-lactose, low salt/sodium, low-purine, low-calorie, low-protein, bland (non-spicy) and gluten-free meals.
- Religious diets, including kosher, halal, and Hindu, Buddhist and Jain vegetarian (sometimes termed Asian vegetarian) meals.
- Vegetarian and vegan meals. Some airlines do not offer a specific meal for vegetarians; instead, they are given a vegan meal.
Before the September 11 attacks in 2001, first class passengers were often provided with full sets of metal cutlery. Afterward, common household items were evaluated more closely for their potential use as weapons on aircraft, and both first class and coach class passengers were restricted to plastic utensils. This restriction has since been relaxed in many countries.
Before the SARS outbreak in 2003, many airlines offered metal cutlery in all classes. During the outbreak, several airlines used all-plastic cutlery, or plastic-tipped cutlery with metal handles, since the SARS virus transfers from person to person easily. To prevent infection, plastic cutlery can be thrown away after use. The airlines later switched back to metal cutlery.
In May 2010, concerns were raised in Australia and New Zealand over their respective flag carriers, Qantas and Air New Zealand, reusing their plastic cutlery for international flights between 10 and 30 times before replacement. Both airlines cited cost-cutting, international quarantine, and environmental reasons for the choice, and said that the plastic cutlery is commercially washed and sterilized before reuse.
Other non-food items 
Condiments (typically salt, pepper, and sugar) are supplied in small sachets. For cleanliness most meals come with a napkin and a moist towelette. First and business class passengers are often provided with hot towels and actual salt and pepper shakers.
During morning flights a cooked breakfast or smaller continental-style may be served. On long haul flights and (short/medium haul flights within Asia) breakfast normally includes an entrée of pancakes or eggs, traditional fried breakfast foods such as sausages and grilled tomatoes, and often muffins or pastry, fruits and breakfast cereal on the side. On shorter flights a continental-style breakfast, generally including a miniature box of breakfast cereal, fruits and either a muffin, pastry, or bagel. Coffee and tea are offered as well, and sometimes hot chocolate.
Food on board the flight ranges in price from free (typically on full-service European and Asian airlines, and on almost all long distance flights) to as much as ten dollars on low-cost airlines.. Quality may also fluctuate due to shifts in the economics of the airline industry, with private jet passengers receiving the equivalent of five-star food service.
On the longest flights in first class and business class, most Asian and European airlines serve multicourse gourmet meals, while airlines based in the US tend to serve large meals including a salad, steak or chicken, potatoes, and ice cream. Some long-haul flights in first and business class offer such delicacies as caviar, champagne, and sorbet. The cost and availability of meals on US airlines has changed considerably in recent years, as financial pressures have inspired some airlines to either begin charging for meals or abandon them altogether in favor of small snacks (Southwest Airlines). Eliminating free pretzels saved Northwest $2 million annually. The carrier lost nearly $3.3 billion since 2001. Air China has reported that each domestic flight's meal requires RMB50 (US$7.3) while international flights require RMB70 (US$10). However, this figure varies from airline to airline, as some have reported costs to be as low as US$3.5. Air China is also minimizing costs by loading only 95% of all meals to reduce leftovers and storing non-perishable foods for emergencies.
Meals must generally be frozen and heated on the ground before takeoff, rather than prepared fresh. Guillaume de Syon, a history professor at Albright College who wrote about the history of airline meals, said that the higher altitudes alter the taste of the food and the function of the taste buds; according to de Syon the food may taste "dry and flavorless" as a result of the pressurization and passengers, feeling thirsty due to pressurization, many drink alcohol when they ought to drink water.
Food safety is paramount in the airline catering industry. A case of mass food poisoning amongst the passengers on an airliner could have disastrous consequences. For example, on February 20, 1992, shrimp tainted with cholera was served on Aerolíneas Argentinas Flight 386. An elderly passenger died and other passengers fell ill. For this reason catering firms and airlines have worked together to provide a set of industry guidelines specific to the needs of airline catering. The World Food Safety Guidelines for Airline Catering is offered free of charge by the International Flight Service Association.
See also 
- Vass, Beck (19 May 2010). "Airlines use plastic cutlery up to 10 times". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
- "Airlines reusing plastic cutlery". Television New Zealand. 19 May 2010. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
- Marcus, Caroline (17 May 2010). "Airline 'reuses plastic cutlery 30 times'". The Sunday Telelgraph. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
- "Catering Guidelines For Flight Attendants Released" in The Article Writer (press release), June 25, 2006. Retrieved May 9, 2008.
- Li, Jiaxiang (2008). My Way: The Eight Strategies of Air China Towards Success. China: Cengage Learning. p. 241. ISBN 978-981-4239-58-5.
- "The Death of the Airline Meal" MSN Money. Accessed May 2011.
- "Airline Says Rivals Violate Rule By Epic, Epicurean Sandwiches; Smorgasbord on Bread Hardly a Tidbit, Pan American Protests, Citing Pact Against Meals on Cut-Rate Flights." The New York Times. Saturday April 12, 1958. Business Financial, Page 38. Retrieved on January 12, 2010.
- "Airlines enlist gourmet chefs to draw first-class fliers." CNN.
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