Airline meal

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A Do & Co à la carte meal as served aboard Austrian Airlines flights

An airline meal, airline food, or in-flight meal is a meal served to passengers on board a commercial airliner. These meals are prepared by specialist airline catering services and normally served to passengers using an airline service trolley.

These meals vary widely in quality and quantity across different airline companies and classes of travel. They range from a simple snack or beverage in short-haul economy class to a seven-course gourmet meal in a first class long-haul flight. The types of food offered also vary widely from country to country, and often incorporate elements of local cuisine, sometimes both from the origin and destination countries. When ticket prices were regulated in the American domestic market, food was the primary means by which airlines differentiated themselves.[1]


The first airline meals were served by Handley Page Transport, an airline company founded in 1919, to serve the LondonParis route in October of that year.[2] Passengers could choose from a selection of sandwiches and fruit.[3]

In the late 1920s, Western Air Express was one of the first airlines to serve in-flight meals in the United States.[4]


Turkish Airlines Business class meal on an Istanbul to Cairo flight
A United Airlines international economy meal from Washington, DC to Zürich.

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). Often the food is reflective of the culture of the country the airline is based in or the country that the airplane is destined for (e.g. Indian, Japanese, Chinese, or Western meals).

The airline dinner typically includes meat (most commonly chicken or beef), fish, or pasta; a salad or vegetable; a small bread roll (with butter); and a dessert. Condiments (typically salt, pepper, and sugar) are supplied in small sachets or shakers.

Caterers usually produce alternative meals for passengers with restrictive diets. These must usually be ordered at least 24 hours in advance, sometimes when buying the ticket. Some of the more common examples include:

Halal food[edit]

For several Islamic and Middle Eastern airlines, in accordance with Islamic customs, all classes and dishes on the plane are served a Muslim meal with Halal certification – without pork and alcohol. While Emirates, Etihad Airways, Oman Air, and Qatar Airways provide bottles of wine to non-Muslim passengers, the cabin crew does not deliver alcoholic beverages lest they violate Islamic customs, unless those non-Muslim passengers specifically request it. Turkish Airlines does not serve any meals with pork or lard, but especially during international flights, a variety of alcoholic beverages are served upon request.[5] Because Iran and Saudi Arabia apply strict Sharia regulations, those countries' airlines, e.g. Iran Air, Mahan Air, and Saudi Airlines, do not deliver pork or alcoholic beverages, and all airlines flying to or from Iran or Saudi Arabia are prohibited from serving either.[6] However, Garuda Indonesia serves alcoholic beverages (whiskey, beer, champagne, and wine) upon request.

Kosher food[edit]

Inflight kosher meal approved by the Beth din of Johannesburg

In the case of Israeli airlines El Al, Arkia, and Israir, all meals served are kosher-certified by Rabbis. Even at destinations outside Israel, sky chefs must be supervised by rabbis to make kosher meals and load their planes.[citation needed] Many other airlines also supply kosher-certified meals, which they buy in from outside certified providers and are supplied to the passengers sealed. These may contain food in double-wrapped foil containers which can be heated up in the plane oven, alongside non-kosher food, without breaking the appropriate dietary laws.

Cutlery and tableware[edit]

Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, 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. Some airlines switched from metal to all-plastic or plastic-handled cutlery during the SARS outbreak in 2003, since the SARS virus transfers from person to person easily, and plastic cutlery can be thrown away after use. Many airlines later switched back to metal cutlery. However, some airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Japan Airlines, Emirates, Garuda Indonesia, and Swiss International Air Lines continue to use metal utensils even in economy class as of 2019. However after the COVID-19 pandemic majority of airlines are back to using mostly plastic cutlery.[citation needed]

Some airlines also made the switch to plastic cutlery in economy class to recover costs resulting from passenger theft, of which metal cutlery tends to be a common item targeted.[7]

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 saving, international quarantine, and environmental as the reasons for the choice. Both have also said that the plastic cutlery is commercially washed and sterilized before reuse.[8][9][10] Reusing plastic tablewares though is a regular practice among many airliners and food caterers.

For cleanliness, most meals come with a napkin and a moist towelette. First and business class passengers are often provided with hot towels.


Breakfast served on a short-haul Aeroflot flight

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 pastries, 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 a flight is usually free on full-service Asian airlines and on almost all long-distance flights, while they might cost extra on low-cost airlines or European full-service airline flights. Quality may also fluctuate due to shifts in the economics of the airline industry.

On long-haul international flights in first class and business class, most Asian and European airlines serve gourmet meals, while legacy carriers based in the US tend to serve multicourse meals including a cocktail snack, appetizer, soup, salad, entrée (chicken, beef, fish, or pasta), cheeses with fruit, and ice cream. Some long-haul flights in first and business class offer such delicacies as caviar, champagne, and sorbet (intermezzo).

The cost and availability of meals on US airlines has changed considerably in recent years, as financial pressures have forced some airlines to either begin charging for meals, or abandon them altogether in favor of small snacks, as in the case of Southwest Airlines. Eliminating free pretzels saved Northwest $2 million annually.[11] Nowadays, the main US legacy carriers (American, Delta, and United) have discontinued full meal service in economy class on short-haul US domestic and North American flights, while retaining it on most intercontinental routes;[12][13][14] and at least one European carrier, Icelandair, follows this policy on intercontinental runs as well.[15]

As of 2018, all 4 major U.S. legacy airlines now offer free snacks on board in economy class. United re-introduced free snacks in February 2016.[16] From April 2016, American fully restored free snacks on all domestic flights in economy class.[17] Free meals will also be available on certain domestic routes.[18] Delta and Southwest have already been offering free snacks for years.[19]

Air China has reported that each domestic flight's meal requires RMB50 (US$7.30) while international flights require RMB70 (US$10).[20] However, this figure varies from airline to airline, as some have reported costs to be as low as US$3.50.[21] Air China is also minimizing costs by loading only 95% of all meals to reduce leftovers and storing non-perishable foods for emergencies.

In 1958 Pan Am and several European airlines entered into a legal dispute over whether certain airline food sandwiches counted as a "meal".[22]


Food being delivered to an American Airlines Boeing 767

Meals must generally be prepared on the ground before takeoff. Guillaume de Syon, a history professor at Albright College who wrote about the history of airline meals,[23] 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, may drink alcohol when they ought to drink water.[24] Tests have shown that the perception of saltiness and sweetness drops 30% at high altitudes. The low humidity in airline cabins also dries out the nose which decreases olfactory sensors which are essential for tasting flavor in dishes.[citation needed]

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.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ronalds-Hannon, Elizabeth. "Free peanuts on airplanes started out as a marketing ploy". Quartz. The Atlantic Media Company. Archived from the original on November 3, 2013. Retrieved August 6, 2013.
  2. ^ "British Civil Aviation in 1919 – Part 1". Interactive aviation timeline. London, United Kingdom: Royal Air Force Museum. Archived from the original on October 11, 2013. Retrieved October 11, 2013. 11 October: The first airline meals are served by Handley Page Transport, when passengers are offered a pre-packed lunch-box, costing 3 shillings, on their London to Paris service.
  3. ^ Haigh, Gideon (2004). The Tencyclopedia. Text Publishing. ISBN 978-1-920885-35-9. Retrieved February 7, 2013.
  4. ^ Berchtold, William E. (November 1934). "Food". Aviation. Vol. 33, no. 11. McGraw Hill Publishing Company. pp. 355–357. Retrieved July 19, 2022 – via Internet Archive.
  5. ^ "What Kind of Food Does Turkish Airlines Serve in Longhaul Economy? - Live and Let's Fly". Live and Let's Fly. April 15, 2017. Retrieved November 20, 2018.
  6. ^ "Halal-friendly airlines with halal menu options". Retrieved May 9, 2018.
  7. ^ Elliot, Christopher. "Theft from planes: Passengers are stealing pillows, blankets, cups and life jackets". Traveller AU. Retrieved March 30, 2019.
  8. ^ Vass, Beck (May 19, 2010). "Airlines use plastic cutlery up to 10 times". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  9. ^ "Airlines reusing plastic cutlery". Television New Zealand. May 19, 2010. Archived from the original on July 1, 2013. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  10. ^ Marcus, Caroline (May 17, 2010). "Airline 'reuses plastic cutlery 30 times'". The Sunday Telegraph. Archived from the original on May 20, 2010. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  11. ^ "No more free pretzels on Northwest flights". Retrieved August 23, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  12. ^ "American Airlines Inflight Dining, Recipes, Menus And More On". October 25, 2012. Archived from the original on January 22, 2014. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
  13. ^ "Airline Meals & Delta Dining | Delta Air Lines". November 10, 2013. Archived from the original on April 26, 2013. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
  14. ^ "United Airlines – Inflight dining". September 22, 2013. Archived from the original on April 20, 2014. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
  15. ^ "Icelandair information: flights to Iceland, destinations, schedules & more – Icelandair". Archived from the original on February 13, 2014. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
  16. ^ "News Releases". Retrieved October 11, 2016.
  17. ^ "Halal-friendly airlines with halal menu options". Retrieved May 9, 2018.
  18. ^ "Free checked baggage? No, but have some pretzels". Retrieved October 11, 2016.
  19. ^ Ha, Thu-Huong. "American and United Airlines are bringing back free snacks for everyone". Retrieved October 11, 2016.
  20. ^ Li, Jiaxiang (2008). My Way The Eight Strategies of Air China Towards Success. China: Cengage Learning. p. 241. ISBN 978-981-4239-58-5.
  21. ^ "The Death of the Airline Meal" Archived March 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine MSN Money Archived March 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine . Accessed May 2011.
  22. ^ "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.
  23. ^ de Syon, Guillaume (2009). "Is it Really Better to Travel than to Arrive? Airline Food as a Reflection of Consumer Anxiety". In Rubin, Lawrence C. (ed.). Food for Thought: Essays on Eating and Culture. McFarland. pp. 199–209.
  24. ^ "Airlines enlist gourmet chefs to draw first-class fliers". Associated Press/CNN. April 29, 2008. Archived from the original on September 15, 2008.
  25. ^ World Food Safety Guidelines for Airline Catering (PDF), International Flight Service Association, 2010, archived from the original (PDF) on December 28, 2013, retrieved December 27, 2013

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Airline meals at Wikimedia Commons
  • Airline menus from 1929 to the present at Northwestern University