SMD4: An Inside Look At Airplane Food

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One day of StarMegaDo4 was spent in Chicago touring various United Airline operations and facilities. Some folks got to tour headquarters in the Willis Tower and sit in CEO Jeff Smisek’s desk. Others got to load baggage and check out the hangers. I was lucky enough to get my first choice, in-flight operations!

Ever since I saw that episode of Top Chef where they had to create meals that would fare well on an airplane, I’ve been very interested in how it works.

We arrived at the facility and were immediately ushered in to lunch, where we were served (by real flight attendants) a BusinessFirst meal.

The meal started with a chilled appetizer of smoked salmon and orange-peppered salmon with wasabi mayonnaise, accompanied by a glass of Espelt Rosado 2010.

Next course was Fresh Seasonal Greens, basically a garden salad with choice of ranch or caeser dressing and hot bread.

The next course was actually buffet style and we got to talk to head chef Gerry McLoughlin about how the various recipes happen, how they are prepared and distributed, and what many of the factors that impact that process are. I loved that we got to try each of the 4 options (for once not having to decide between the chicken or the beef), but was a little disappointed to learn the portions had not been prepped in an airplane-like oven, but a traditional kitchen.

The entree options included:

Grilled Tenderloin of Beef with Asiago broth, brown butter gnocchi and green asparagus
Osso Bucco Style Breast of Chicken with chanterelle mushroom ragout, garlic polenta cake and broccolini
San Franciso-style Cioppini with seared hake and grilled shrimp in tomato-seafood sauce
Spinach Cannelloni with four cheese sauce and roasted tomatoes with Parmesan cheese

The seafood stew and the cannelloni were the the real standouts in my opinions. All were good, but those were surprisingly good!

Dessert was the classic ice cream sundae tray, something I haven’t seen in a long time!

So what are some of the considerations in creating an airplane meal?

  • Since everything has to fit on the cart, nothing can be more than 2 inches high. That definitely cuts down on some options (like a full size baked potato).
  • Everything has to fit in the small aluminum tin and be able to be separated out (to account for dietary preferences.
  • “Regional” foods need to be close enough in taste to make a home crowd happy, but not so tailored that it will alienate other eaters.

After the meal Chef Gerry talked about the challenges they face in creating menus and took some questions. Since I often have wondered why I see the same meals for 6+ months (when I’m lucky enough to be upgraded on a long enough flight to have a meal), I was really interested to learn more about the economics of it.

It can take at least a month to get a recipe perfected from the date of original idea. Then the costs have to be worked out. Then the caterers/vendores have to be contacted about the change. And a caterer may have 3-4 weeks of inventory already created and 3-4 weeks of supplies already bought. Which translates into a delay of at least 3-4 months from the time a new recipe is thought of to when it may appear on a plane. No wonder I’m still eating teriyaki chicken!

After lunch, my group headed to a mock 747 to run through safety demonstrations.


I was randomly chosen for a first class seat, so I was pretty happy. The flight attendants ran through the usual safety instructions and then randomly called on members of our group to get up and run through them. Based on the hilarious antics of folks trying to keep up with motions associated with each instruction, it’s clearly harder than it looks. For me the highlight was when, not one, but two people accidentally inflated their life vests while demonstrating how to pull down firmly on the red tabs.

From there we moved on to food preparation, where we donned hair nets, gowns, gloves and watched a demonstration of how to plate an appetizer in 2 min or less.

Then it was our turn. Ack! My takeaway is that I’ll certainly be less critical of slightly lopsided appetizers in the future.

From food prep we moved to beverage cart prep. The challenge was for teams of 3 to correctly set up a cart (after only one opportunity to see how it should look) for morning beverage service within 3 minutes. That was also harder than it would seem, but mine and Jeanne’s teams tied for first place, so perhaps we have a second career path should we want it.

While I would never consider myself and entitled or demanding passenger, I was surprised at how my expectations changed as I saw what has to happen behind the scenes to even make an average meal, much less an outstanding one. With that in mind, I impudently asked the head of in-flight services what were the 1-2 things they wished customers would understand.

He mentioned several things I felt like I should have known if I’d just thought about it.

  • Tastebuds are significantly decreased at high altitude, so no matter how seasoned a dish is on the ground, it will never taste quite as good in the air.
  • Their routes span the globe which means their menus can only include ingredients available in all locations.
  • Another theme which popped up frequently the next day, is the challenges the merger has posed for employees and vendors alike, since the United and Continental systems appear merged on the front end, but still operate separately on the backend. Which means a caterer gets multiple orders from two separate systems every month that they need to figure out how to execute as one.

The day ended with a fun wine tasting and cheese pairing session directed by one of United’s partners. It also gave us a glimpse into the wines they’re serving now as well as a wine that will be on the 2013 menu.


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Heels First is the travels and tribulations of two twenty-something frequent fliers jumping into the world of travel. Join Keri and Jeanne as they tackle mileage runs, elite status, and of course–the perfect travel accessories.

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