By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
Airline meals are often the butt of jokes but they are even harder to stomach when they don't arrive at all, as British Airways passengers have found. So why is in-flight food such big business?
Would you eat it?
They are ridiculed almost as much as the old British Rail sandwich, but hungry passengers on recent BA flights would have gladly accepted the usual tray of foil-covered, in-flight food without complaint.
Caught up in a multi-million pound food fight involving BA, its caterers Gate Gourmet and 670 of their sacked staff, travellers had their flights cancelled and no hot food was served on planes that actually made it into the air for two weeks.
They may be a standing joke, but airline meals are at the heart of the battle for customers and add up to a multi-billion pound industry.
BA alone uses 80,000 a day, with the average meal in economy class costing airlines an estimated £12 to prepare and serve, with everything factored in.
"The whole essence of BA is that it is a class product and worth paying good money for," says Simon Calder, travel editor of the Independent.
"Meals are a big part of that and it makes much in its advertising of its 'free' food and drink."
Each airline's menu involves months of research and development, testing and tasting, often with expert consultants. With research suggesting pressurised cabins dull our taste buds by up to 30%, food and wine is selected not only for its flavour but its ability to fly.
And getting the meals to people's laps is a logistical triumph. Turn around from factory to plane is usually done in a few hours, with companies using a cook-chill process.
"Every day is an amazing feat of logistical planning," says William Seeman, founder president of the International Travel Catering Association (ITCA).
"There's an enormous amount of work involved even if you are just serving a cheese sandwich and everything has to be extremely hygienic. Can you imagine a plane full of people getting a tummy bug on a long-haul flight?"
So is all the money and effort worth it? Apart from saving money on producing meals, low-cost airlines who don't serve free food save cash on cleaning, have a quicker turnaround on planes and actually make revenue from the sandwiches they do sell on board.
But free food still matters to a large bulk of airline passengers, according to research. One in five people say they wouldn't use an airline again if the in-flight meal did not meet their expectations, according to aviation communications group SITA.
One such devotee is Aron Danburg, who lives in Taipei. He keeps a website of pictures devoted to airline meals. It has become an unofficial forum where people praise and complain about their experiences.
"To me a vacation begins upon boarding the airplane, so I usually get out my camera when the attendants serve the meal," he says.
Service with a smile on Japan Airline in the 70s
After years of sampling the food, he says airlines based in Europe or Asia serve the best food.
The accolade for the best meal he has ever had on a plane goes to a fish dinner served in Economy Class on a Singapore Airlines flight from Bangkok to Bali.
"Spectacular, I would have happily paid good money for that meal in a restaurant," he says. Unfortunately, he didn't get a photo.
But ultimately it's the low-cost airlines which end up as winners, says Calder. "They promise little and passengers expect nothing more than to get to their destination safely. When it is achieved on time, aboard a clean aircraft and with a friendly crew, then many feel they have received rather more than they paid for."
But with flights so competitively priced now, free-meal airlines are working hard to keep food a priority for passengers. They are trying to get away from the image of eating from a plastic dish, while crammed into a seat from which you are unable to move until the meal leftovers have been cleared away by a hostess.
BA stopped serving meals in business and first class on selected overnight flights last year, with passengers able to dine in the premium lounges before flying.
Delta Airlines advertise their meals in 1969
For those unable to stump up the cash for first class, disposable roll mats are the latest innovation. Introduced by tour operator MyTravel, they unfold to reveal cold items such as cheese, biscuits and desserts and then double as a tablecloth.
A hot dish is still served but once the passenger has finished they simply clear away the debris into a "tidy bag" and hang it on the back of the seat in front for collection.
But airlines still have a way to go to tackle the poor image of in-flight food. Less than a fifth of people are "very satisfied" with the food on offer on airlines, according to a recent survey by Holiday Which?
Some believe the meals will probably never improve.
"At 30,000 feet nothing is going to taste very good," says Simon Calder. "The meals haven't improved, the only thing that has changed is they've got smaller."
In-flight meals are essential. They are an integral part of passing the hours on board an aircraft. The good meals one tends to forget but the bad ones stick in your mind. On one occasion from Tokyo to Taipei I found a mosquito implanted on top of the pudding. On other occasions I have found my meal delicately seasoned with the most exotic forms of human hair!!
James Metcalf, Mitcham, Surrey
The most memorable airline meal I ate was smoked arctic char on a flight out of the Canadian North. Like Mr. Danburg, I would have been happy to pay for that meal in a restaurant.
Michael Montcombroux, Inwood, Canada
My family lives in Hong Kong and I do fly there once or twice every year. For such a long haul flight I do find food and drink is quite important due to the fact that you are going to stay there for 12 hours! However, I wouldn't say no if they offer me a bigger seats and a laptop power socket (to keep myself entertain with my laptop!) instead of free food.
Sunny Chan, Southampton, UK
The no-frills airlines have it spot on; who even cares about eating on a plane? Apart from feeling slightly nauseous the whole process is uncomfortable and hardly satisfying. Keep them only for long haul flights and ask for shorter flights- have the passengers tried eating something in the airport before their flight?
Matt Page, Sheffield, England
I fly on at least 10 long haul flights per year and if I had to choose between an airline with food and one without, I would always choose the one with. It's not that I'm desperate to eat when I fly, just that 10 hours on a plane is incredibly dull (no matter how good the in flight entertainment) and a meal provides a welcome distraction. I agree with one thing in the report - Singapore Air provide the best meals, indeed the best of everything.
Paul Johnson, seoul, South Korea
I just want to clarify that it doesn't matter whether one is at ground level or at 30,000 feet when it comes to ingesting warmish spiced cardboard taken from a Styrofoam container.
I know the difference and bring my own sammies when travelling instead.
dickie, NY USA
I am one of the 20% of people who are very satisfied with in-flight food - I love it! I always look forward to it coming round, I always enjoy all of it, and I find that even though it's really small, I always feel full afterwards. I think they do a great job in supplying us all with hot meals at 30,000 feet.
Julie Blance, Chester, UK
I'm a huge fan of airline food. I love the ingenuity that goes into making a dish edible and appealing inside a small box. I always view the meal as a surprise waiting to happen and get quite excited when it is delivered. I think the bad reputation is definitely not deserved.
Jeremy Hartley, Cheddar, Somerset
£12.00? I'd love to know how...
Other than the heating method (which in cheap national restaurant chains is all done with microwaves) how can serving food in the air be different from a chain restaurant serving up microwave-ready food for £2 or £3 a dish?
Mike Gulliver, Bristol
Some years ago I used to fly on a monthly basis over a period of many years. The airline food was always a highlight of my flight and I would make pains to be gracious to the cabin staff so that if there were any meals left over I might have seconds.
simon Mallett, UK Maidstone
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