Airline food has come a long way since 1927

The Qantas steward in Business Class on the Sydney-Jakarta flight lays a white linen napkin on my tray table and delivers a hearty pumpkin soup with croutons, and a crisp salad, then asks what my bread options are. Wholegrain sourdough, please and thank you so much. On the return flight, fresh fruit and the lemon tart were irresistible. Airline food has come a long, long way since a thermos and a packet of biscuits.

Qantas Business Class lemon tart and fresh fruit, accompanied by a dessert wine

It’s 85 years since the first inflight meal service on a commercial aircraft. On May 1,1927 Imperial Airways (predecessor to British Airways) introduced the Silverwing branded air service on the London to Paris route. The flight offered the first luxury onboard meal service. A male steward dressed in a smart white tunic served just 10 passengers on the flight, which took around two hours.

Onboard was a small cabinet carrying four gills (servings) of whisky, a dozen bottles of lager beer, two siphons of sparkling water and 12 assorted bottles of mineral water. They also carried a packet of sandwiches or biscuits and one or two thermos flasks of hot water, within which the steward made coffee or beef tea to nourish the passengers during the flight. The service represented the height of luxury, up until this time passengers had to fend for themselves, packing homemade snacks for the journey.

British Airways’ 14,000 cabin crew now serve around 100,000 meals a day to customers, often with more than one meal on an individual flight. They are taught skills which include how to tell a Merlot from a Shiraz, how to cook the perfect scrambled eggs and how to re-create a five star turndown service.

Travellers like to bitch about airline food. I once had to ask a steward what the flabby grey thing in a plastic dish was (it was an omelette, I had guessed pasta), but most often it’s edible and some airlines excel.

Qantas airline food

In Australia, Qantas delivers meals to all flights (on short hops it’s a snack), in addition to buffet spreads in First Class and Business lounges. First Class also has an a la carte option. In 2008, Qantas won the internationally renowned, Skytrax Best Economy Class Onboard Catering Award. This award most recently went to the Turkish carrier.

Turkish Airlines award-winning economy class meal

Qantas flagship First Lounges in Sydney and Melbourne offer restaurants with Neil Perry menus, library and complimentary day spa. My most decadent choice in their Business Class Lounge has been dark chocolate brownies accompanied by a glass of St Hubert’s Pinor Noir. A match made in heaven.

It’s an amazing achievement that airline chefs and engineers have worked out how to serve their customers tasty hot meals at 40,000 feet prepared half a day before takeoff.

United Airlines installed the first experimental airport kitchen in California in 1934 – an innovation, along with pressurized cabins in 1939 and purpose-built galleys, which had a big impact on in-flight catering.

During the ’40s and ’50s, a huge increase in passenger numbers saw the end of on-board dining rooms, and travellers began to experience a standard of in-flight service similar to today. There were no class distinctions back then. Anyone who could afford a ticket was treated to identical service. On long-haul flights – like the Qantas Constellations on the Kangaroo Route from Sydney to London – passengers continued to be treated to an elevated level of service, with food served on china plates and linen tablecloths in the ’60s. Some of those luxurious touches remain, and thank goodness airlines are using real cutlery again.

Pan Am used Maxims to provide food on its New York to Paris flights. And when the first 747s took to the air in the ’70s, they further revolutionized in-flight service. First-class passengers had the option of buffet-style dining (choosing meals from a food display area), or a swinging club-style lounge bar on the upper deck complete with a piano. By the 1960s, commercial airlines were routinely serviced by mass catering companies, sometimes owned, but often leased by the major airlines or large hotel and restaurant chains. All airline meals are now prepared in huge kitchens, known as in-flight catering facilities located at or near airports, which operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you’re wondering why chicken is always on the menu, it is because it holds up better than red meat (which can only be served well done) and remains moist and tender even after reheating.


* Qantas is Australia’s national carrier and Qantas airline food generally gets the thumbs up in all classes.

* In First and Business, restaurant-style menus are designed by renowned Australian chef and restaurateur Neil Perry. First customers can enjoy an eight course tasting menu on some sectors

*  Premium Economy offers a Neil Perry-inspired menu, premium wines and refreshments. A choice of up to three main meal options is available in Economy, along with ice creams, hot chocolate, herbal teas, fresh fruit and Refresh, an assortment of quality snack foods

* The ice creams are a post-meal delight (it made my recent Wellington-Sydney flight in Economy), proof that a little extra effort goes a long way

* Qantas sources more than four million bottles of wine each year and offers more than 300 different wines, showcasing the diversity of the Australian industry

* Qantas opened dedicated domestic Business Lounges in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra in 2008, offering signature menus designed by Neil Perry, international lounge-style ‘island dining’, tray service with a Dish of the Day, barista service, complimentary wireless internet, quiet work suites with Apple iMac technology and,separate bathroom and private shower suites. and go to for reviews on all the world’s airlines catering.


2 thoughts on “Airline food has come a long way since 1927

  1. Who doesn’t love to trash the stuff we’re served at 40,000 feet. The worst food I ate was on American Airlines (strange textures and utterly tasteless) and Aeroflot (a guess what it is compeition) and an African airline I can’t remember the name of which is just as well. If you have any doubts about what you might be served, be sensible and have a meal at home before you go to the airport. It’s that simple. Most people also know that airport food is overpriced and only bog standard most of the time. Unless you’re lucky enough to be in a Business or First Class Lounge and the standards of these vary hugely, depending on what country you’re in.


  2. What, no Qantas bashing for a change? I thought slagging off the flying kangaroo had become a national sport.


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