Why do airplanes serve food?

Today’s on-board food service looks a bit different than it used to.
Posted at 6:16 PM, Mar 17, 2023

Once upon a time, airlines turned cabins into fine dining establishments — with meals fit for royalty. In 1919, passengers on board a flight from London to Paris were the first served a meal in the sky. Domestic American Airlines soon followed. Travelers dined lavishly — with hot meals like fried chicken or steak served on china dishes. Today? Aviation historians say — not so much.  

"I don't think people expect much from airplanes anymore," said Janet Bednarek, professor of history at the University of Dayton.

"Now, if you want to get something a little nicer than the pretzels in coach, you have to fork over $10 for a, you know, a box of snacks," said Shea Oakley, a commercial aviation historian. 

But why don’t we get five-star dining at 30,000 feet anymore? 

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act. The law ended federal fare and route regulations and increased competition in the industry. That meant airlines were looking for new ways to save money. 

"It was all about costs, keeping the costs down to make the most money possible. And that meant cutting deeply into meal service, particularly in coach," Oakley said. 

"Food becomes weight. And the more weight you carry in food, the less you can carry in passengers or baggage," said Bednarek. 

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In one famous instance, American Airlines reportedly cut weight by removing one olive from each salad, saving tens of thousands of dollars annually.  

Bednarek says price competition paired with a post- 9-11 flying attitude (focused on safety over service) that meant fine china was out and pretzels and peanuts were in. 

Southwest Airlines offered peanut fares and then served the snack on board. The peanuts are gone now — due to allergy concerns — but coach passengers can still expect light snacks instead of a full meal. 

"I mean, these cheap snacks are exactly that: cheap snacks. But, you know, the airlines try to differentiate themselves a little bit from their competitors by offering different things," Oakley said. 

Southwest now offers a snack mix. Other airlines prefer something sweet. 

"The Biscoff. It's become famous," Bednarek said. 

Delta Airlines started serving the famous Belgian cookies in the 1980s and several other airlines now offer it on board. 

In 2019, United Airlines brought back its fan-favorite stroopwaffel to the friendly skies, after temporarily grounding the snack option.  

"There was a time in commercial aviation where what you were being fed might make you decide what airline you were flying," Oakley said. 

Today, Oakley sums up how many travelers feel. 

"I don't choose an airline based on what they're feeding me or not feeding me," Oakley said. 

While the pricey seats up front still have the nice meals and fancy dishes, for most of us flying high means keeping our food expectations a lot lower.