Indigestion At 30,000 Feet

Airline meal
There have been many remarkable accomplishments in the history of aviation. Manned flight itself was considered a miracle. Similarly, Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight, breaking the sound barrier, and rockets to the moon were all greeted with appropriate celebration. Now we can add another accomplishment that nobody thought was possible in the world of aviation — the food on airlines is actually getting worse.

The airline meal was never the highlight of the trip, but in the last few years, it's gone downhill from inedible. There are cuts of beef and parts of chickens that you only see on airplanes.

We're told that the decline in airplane food has to do with the cuts the airlines have had to make since the 9/11 attack. (I seem to remember things getting worse even before then, but I'm not going to quibble about an unidentifiable vegetable or two.) Where they used to give us a meal, we now get a snack. Where they used to give us a snack, we now get a bag of pretzels. The airline business might be down, but the pretzel business is probably soaring.

Since 9/11, the nation's 10 largest carriers cut the amount spent on meal service per passenger by about 10 percent. That left an average of $4.29 per meal. Now, you might say that you can buy better fast food for that amount of money, but the airlines are also sincerely trying to give us healthy food.

Some other changes since 9/11 include plastic-ware instead of silverware. It was hard enough to cut that stuff with a metal knife, but cutting it with a plastic one is pretty close to impossible. I understand that they don't want to give out possible weapons, but they already give passengers a lethal weapon in the form of their dinner roll.

Some airlines — like Southwest — have discontinued meal service. Not coincidentally, since no longer putting airplane food in front of its passengers, Southwest's business has grown.

Recently, I flew on American Airlines, and was pleased to hear that instead of a regular meal, there would be "bistro service." I imagined a meal that would evoke eating outdoors on the Champs Elysee. Wrong. Bistro Service consists of passengers picking up a paper bag of food from a bin as they enter the plane. At the very least, they could have had a snooty French waiter handing us our bags.

Some airlines are now giving passengers the option of buying better food on the plane. Also, airport restaurants and food concessionaires are selling more and more "take on" food for passengers who don't want to eat whatever epicurean surprises the airline has for them.

Another airplane food-avoidance technique that an increasing number of passengers use is bringing their own food. However, some passengers are taking this too far. They bring onboard a meal, smothered in onions and garlic, or a bucket of greasy chicken. Others have actually carried a steak onboard, and asked the flight attendant to heat it up for them. And because of all this food that people are bringing on planes, sometimes the food scraps and packaging are more than the in-flight garbage bins can handle.

I have confidence that the great minds at the airlines will figure out the food problem. Remember, these are the same people who came up with the mini liquor bottle, and a way to make us watch old television shows that we didn't want to watch in the first place.

There is another theory. If airline food's serious decline really started with 9/11, maybe it's not a coincidence. Maybe Homeland Security is behind it. Maybe they figure that we'll all be safer this way. If the airlines keep serving awful food, maybe bad guys won't even want to get on the plane.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver