Words by Soo Kim
Travellers have expressed some of the most colourful opinions on the world’s worst plane food across various airlines. But in-flight snacks, for the most part, have managed to escape the amusing, at times vitriolic, judgment.
Perhaps it’s because whether we’re feeling indifferent or subconsciously perpetually peckish, most of us won’t be averse to a little mid-flight snack (especially a free one).
In-flight dining made a relatively healthy-looking debut in 1919 in the form of pre-packed lunch boxes, where passengers were able to choose from a selection of sandwiches and fruit, served on a flight from London to Paris by the short-lived Handley Page Transport airline.
As bigger and more comfortable planes offering smoother journeys were built in the late Thirties, travellers were no longer concerned about air travel sickness, Bob van der Linden, the chairman of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum told Marketplace.
With airline regulation put in place by the International Air Transport Association from the Fifties, in-flight services became one of the only ways for airlines to distinguish themselves among its competitors.
Since then, from the instalment of on-board kitchens to hot meals with table cloths and silver service, plane food followed a glamorous trajectory through the golden age of air travel leading into the Fifties and Sixties.
By 1949, travellers on a BOAC first-class Boeing Stratocruiser long-haul flight were offered afternoon teas, cocktails and canapés, as well as cigarettes before and after meals, in addition to a six-course dinner, while from 1951, passengers on Monarch, its “de-luxe dollar-earning service”, on Stratocruiser flights between New York and London enjoyed seven-course dinners and breakfast in bed.
This glamorous sentiment of the era was summed up nicely in a 1958 promotional video by Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) at the time that said: "Delicious food adds to the enjoyment. It's prepared in four simultaneously operating galleys, where dishes can be cooked in five-minute ovens. The travail has been taken out of travel".
But in the same year, with the introduction of economy class seats on trans-Atlantic flights for the first time, airlines were required to limit their economy class food offerings to coffee, tea, mineral water and “simple, cold and inexpensive” sandwiches – a requirement that sparked the ‘Great Sandwich War of 1958’ and debate on what defines a sandwich.
The traditional American-style sandwich of ham and cheese (or other filling) between two breads served by Trans World Airways and Pan Am went head-to-head with the more extravagant feeling open-faced, dainty sandwiches topped with slices of exotic meats, such as ox tongue, served by European airlines such as Scandinavian Air Systems, Swiss Air, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Air France, which were accused of serving food falling outside the regulation guidelines at the time.
But through the tail end of the Sixties, with the launch of the Concorde service for British Airways and Air France, flights on such aircraft were known for their high-quality cuisine.
So how did a tiny little peanut manage to rise above an ever-growing tower of multi-course meals and champagne in the skies? As industry deregulation hit the Seventies and air fares began to drop, so did the priority placed on plane food.
And in the wake of this deregulation period was born America’s Southwest Airlines, the world's first and currently largest low-cost carrier. In a bid to market itself as the ultimate budget carrier with which you can “fly for peanuts”, the pioneering American airline made history by becoming the first airline to serve only peanuts and eliminate in-flight meal offerings to its passengers.
Peanuts were also a convenient low-cost fit for airlines which were beginning to favour salty foods on their menus at the time, with the knowledge that air pressure desensitises our taste buds, which might explain why fliers have also been prone to opt for a savoury tomato juice while in the sky and generally crave more drinks to quench their thirst.
Previous research from the Munich-based research group Fraunhofer Institute revealed that when you’re on a plane, your experiences of taste are as though you have a cold. Salt is perceived as 20 to 30 per cent less intense, while sugar decreases in intensity by 15 to 20 percent.
“People do crave stronger flavours when they fly, because of the drying out of the nasal passages which reduce some subtleties of taste. Healthier snack options? Fruit, of course,” said Dr Richard Dawood, Telegraph Travel’s travel health expert.
For around 20 or so years, peanuts remained the staple in-flight snack for Southwest and other similar low-cost carriers. But following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and growing financial pressures, airlines increasingly began to eliminate free economy class meals or replace them with snacks such as peanuts to help reduce costs.
In 1987, Robert Crandall, chief executive of American Airlines, reportedly cut the carrier's annual outgoings by $40,000 by having a single olive removed from every salad served in first class.
Delta Airlines reportedly once calculated that it could potentially save around $210,000 a year by removing a single strawberry from a salad served in first class, while Continental, United, American Airlines and US Airways were reported to have saved around $2.5 million a year by removing peanuts and other free snacks from their flights by 2011, Skift reported.
But recently, nuts have been a somewhat contentious snack, from cases of passengers with extreme nut allergy reactions to that of a Korean Air flight being delayed after the daughter of the airline's chief executive demanded a steward be removed for offering her macadamia nuts.
Last year a four-year old girl on board a Ryanair flight suffered a severe allergic reaction after a fellow passenger reportedly opened a bag of peanuts after ignoring three warnings from staff banning the consumption of nuts on the flight, while in 2013, a 17-year-old boy with a severe tree nut allergy went into anaphylactic shock after eating what was thought to be a nut-free airline meal.
“The issue of peanuts in the air is a difficult one. If a person is so intensely sensitive to peanuts that even the slightest trace poses a risk, it becomes very hard to guarantee that any environment can ever be a nut free zone,” Dr Dawood told Telegraph Travel.
“Such a severely affected person needs to assume that every environment is potentially dangerous, and act accordingly (carrying Epi-pens and being on maximum alert at all times). A severe allergic reaction is more difficult to manage in the air, since skilled help is less accessible.
“Of course the peanut is par excellence the airline snack. Before going out of fashion because of the allergy issue, the average airline offering of 22.5 nuts per passenger was considered a significant factor in a passenger’s airline choice, “ he added.
But despite the recent nut rage, peanuts and other free in-flight snack incarnations continue to be served today on various airlines such as Virgin Atlantic, which currently offers Penn State pretzels and a Fab ice lolly in economy and premium economy, while fliers in Upper Class (business) are offered Tyrrells crisps and a Salcombe Dairy ice cream.
Cathay Pacific, which has been previously voted among the world’s best long-haul airlines at the Telegraph Travel Awards, serves free biscuits, dried fruits, chocolates, cups of noodles, apples and crisps to its passengers in addition to peanuts.
Turkish Airlines, which was named the world’s best for airline meals, second best for economy class in-flight meals and third best for premium economy meals in the latest survey by Skytrax this year, offers a similar complimentary selection of snacks, in addition to mixed nuts, sandwiches and cakes.
Ten Of The Best Free In-Flight Snacks
The salty crisps from Terra Blues Potato Chips are made from naturally blue potatoes and are complimentary on JetBlue.
Craft beer and rum punch
Horizon Air and Skywest, affiliate carriers of Alaska Airlines, serve complimentary local craft beer and wine on almost every flight. Hawaiian Airlines also offers a Koloa Breeze Rum Punch cocktail on flights between Hawaii and North America.
Havanna alfajores cookies
The cookie sandwich filled with dulce de leche and dipped in chocolate is a Latin American favourite and served on the Argentina flights of the South American carrier LAN.
The chewy chocolate bar is served on Virgin Australia along with other classic Australian sweets including Natural Confectionery Co. jelly snakes and Spotted Cow cookies.
Wasabi ranch popcorn
Hawaiian Airlines offers a twist on the traditional popcorn snack, coating it with wasabi and ranch dressing flavours, while Virgin America serves classic salted caramel popcorn along with the more unusual citrus and basil flavoured turkey jerky from Krave.
Tamari Almonds and Uglies
Qantas also offers an exotic selection of almonds roasted in Sydney and flavoured with a Japanese tamari sauce and Uglies from Lily O'Brien's Chocolates, the Irish chocolate bar made with honeycomb crumbles and wheat crunchies.
Find your sweet fix, from nougat to caramels, in a cone of confections offered by Air France’s cross-continental flights.
The gingerbread/shortbread fusion where “Europe’s favourite cookie meets America’s favourite cookie” were first introduced to US flights in 1985 and have been served on Delta Airlines and most domestic US airlines for the last three decades.
The classic chewy powdered Turkish sweet offered on Turkish Airlines is available in various flavours, including rosewater, orange, and lemon.
Achiras del Huila biscuits
The bright yellow and savoury Colombian cheese sticks are offered by Avianca, Colombia’s national carrier.
This article was written by Soo Kim from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.