Why Does Airline Food Taste So Bad?

It turns out it's tough to make food that tastes good at 35,000 feet. The decreased humidity in the cabin dries out your nose, and the increased cabin pressure numbs taste buds. So what's an airline chef to do? Chef Clifton Lyles of Alaska Airlines wants to change the perception of airline food.

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Tiny bags of pretzels followed by some kind of rubber mystery meat - for those who fly, you know exactly what I'm talking about: the joys of airplane food. Well, some airlines are now trying to shake things up. They're showcasing some new cuisine in hopes of luring more passengers. But producing food that actually tastes great at cruising altitude is not easy, as NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Every month, managers at Alaska Airlines gather at their catering company's giant kitchen to taste and critique new menu items. Forty-one-year-old Clifton Lyles is ready for them. He's the airline's corporate chef, responsible for creating lovely-to-look-at, wonderful-tasting food that can be served in a flying tube at 35,000 feet.

CLIFTON LYLES: For me, it's really challenging. Coming from, you know, a traditional, classically trained chef background to come into an environment where I was going to have to make good leftovers was kind of ego-bruising at the beginning.

KAUFMAN: But that feeling didn't last long. Indeed, he likes pushing the envelope of what is possible onboard.

LYLES: It's basically kind of a competition. You know, I've got this opponent who's logistically challenging me with lack of flavor because I'm at an altitude. I've got to reheat it, so I can't cook it fresh. And for me, it's to kind of figure out: OK, what can I do to overcome each of those challenges?

KIRSTEN ROBINETT: So this is a brand new asparagus and wild Alaskan smoked salmon quiche.

KAUFMAN: Kirsten Robinett, a product manager at Alaska Airlines, takes a tiny piece of the first-class breakfast entree. She passes it around the giant table for others to sample. Over the next hour or so, the group will taste more than a dozen items. The first-class offerings are more elegant and served on a plate. The coach fare that passengers can buy comes in a foil tin. Most of the items sampled get a big thumbs-up, but a few need changes.

Airlines actually cook their food on the ground, and then reheat it in flight. And Robinett has discovered that one of the chicken dishes is too big for the container used for reheating.

ROBINETT: A lot of times, the leg's not sticking up like that, but this - it's not going to fit in there unless you would mash it down. So I don't know. I don't know what we're going to do.

KAUFMAN: Logistical challenges like this pop up all the time, and, says the airline's Lisa Luchau...

LISA LUCHAU: Even flight attendants that come to our menu reviews have no idea the amount of thought that goes behind every little entree, from folding the cheese to how do you wrap something. All of those details have to be considered.

KAUFMAN: But perhaps the most vexing problem facing Chef Lyles and his team is this: At cruising altitude, you lose about 20-30 percent of your sense of taste.

LYLES: Most people don't realize that, but it definitely shows itself when you're eating in an airline.

KAUFMAN: He explains that as the cabin is pressurized and the humidity inside the plane falls, some of your taste buds go numb, and your sense of smell is diminished, too. Things that tasted great on the ground are now bland and boring.

LYLES: You have to use your eyes. You have to use your nose. You have to use your ears. Every other sense that I can involve in the meal itself in order to translate what it is that you're missing by your sense of taste is what makes it successful. If I was to just go by, OK, it's 20-30 percent less flavor, I'll add 20-30 percent more, it's not going to work.

KAUFMAN: Few people pick an airline for its culinary offerings. Indeed, one of the most popular and profitable airlines, Southwest, typically offers only peanuts and pretzels. Still, passengers say food is a part of the customer experience, and in a highly competitive environment, many airlines are trying to do whatever they can to get more people onto their planes.

As for Chef Lyles, he has his own ambition. He wants to change the perception of airline food and wants people to stop wrinkling their noses when he tells them he's an airline chef.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

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