As flying got cheaper and easier, these airborne boozehounds soon found themselves with more company in the cabin, and airlines found themselves with more mouths to feed, making that level of fine dining unsustainable.
“It gets more expensive,” de Syon says, “flight technology gets better, it gets faster, and you can carry more people. You no longer have the same economies of scale. If you’re trying to feed 60 passengers, it’s one thing, but the moment you’re trying to feed four flights of 150, you have yourself a huge logistical problem.”
And thus, in 1952, economy class was born, and with it came a decline in the quality of the food for the masses. While at first airlines tried to compete by continuing to offer special food in economy class, the International Air Transport Association quickly stepped in to regulate what could be offered, to the point of reprimanding an airline for providing an extra roll of bread.
First class fliers, then as now, could still get an elaborate meal, since they paid for the privilege. But their enjoyment of their food likely declined with the advancement of airplane technology as well. Though old-timey flights were slower and bumpier, when it comes to dining, they had one distinct advantage: The planes weren’t pressurized.
Today’s planes, which reach altitudes of 35,000 feet or more, are pressurized so you only feel like you’re about 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. This helps keep you, you know, breathing at those high altitudes, but it also numbs your taste buds, making food taste blander. Older aircraft didn’t fly as high, meaning the prime cuts of steak being served on those early flights tasted more like they would have on the ground.
Other aspects of the airplane environment make it less than gastronomically ideal—cabin humidity is typically lower than 20 percent (as opposed to the 30 percent or more that is normal in homes), which can dry out your nose, weakening your sense of smell. And smell is inextricably linked to taste. (The dryness of the cabin makes you thirsty, too.) Also, the air in the cabin is recycled about every two to three minutes. That, plus air conditioning, can dry up and cool down food very quickly, according to de Syon.
“If you were to serve a nice breast of chicken, which you can do on board, within a minute or two, the chicken would be like sawdust,” he says.
The solution is in the sauce.
French chef Raymond Oliver is credited with devising this strategy for modern airline food. In 1973, French airline Union de Transports Aériens asked Oliver to design its menu, and he suggested three staple items: beef bourguignon, coq au vin, and veal in a cream sauce. All of these dishes are covered in sauce, which protects the meat from sawdusting out when reheated and served in the bone-dry environment of an airplane cabin.