Flying And Food: A Bumpy Marriage At Best

10/16/2009 03:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This may come as a shock to you, but the airline industry forks over $40 billion — the same amount commercial carriers have lost since 2001 — on in-flight food.

With rising fuel prices eroding margins, airlines are clamoring to raise "ancillary revenue." Besides fees for luggage, extra legroom, and overpriced pillows and blankets, food and water are the latest items commanding a hefty pricetag.

Flying wasn't always the act of human herding, and savvy observers of aluminum bird culture have taken notice. In the recently published anthology, Food for Thought: Essays on Food and Culture, historian Guillaume de Syon offered compelling commentary on the history of airline food. His contention — that even as we bemoan our limp and lukewarm linguine, we subconsciously look forward to the dining portion of our flight — is counterintuitive. Does the smell of microwaved meat simultaneously repel and attract our olfactory glands like the distinctive odor of gasoline? Not exactly.

De Syon explains the act of flying is lonely. While rushing through the lithosphere in a tin can wedged between a size 14 coupon-clipper and a smug foreigner taking advantage of the weak dollar, you can only look at a tray table and the seat in front of you and await the arrival of modern-day manna. Food provides much-needed comfort in this otherwise torturous situation.

The airline industry first offered food to entice travelers to opt for the glamour of the air transport over boats or trains; this advertising ploy prevailed for decades as flying left other modes of transportation in its exhaust fumes.

Britain, France and Germany each claim their national airlines pioneered the in-flight dining practice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the country with more types of cheese than days in a year who set the standard. Air Union — the forebear of Air France — hired a railway caterer and named the three-course meals presented in first-class railcar fashion: "The Epicurean."

Service wasn't enough to distract anxious passengers from defying gravity, so airlines added fully stocked bars. When alcohol proved an insufficient elixir to passengers' fears, airlines hired female flight attendants. Modeled after nurses, the O.G. stewardesses dispensed aspirin and cordials to placate unnerved patients. (Considering today's terrorist scares, Zoloft and Prozac would be a welcome handout.)

Doubling as waitresses, it wasn't the stewardesses' lack of culinary expertise at fault for mediocre food. Not only is one's palette diminished at high altitude, but the arid airplane atmosphere dries out even the most stale-resistant baguette. Parisian chef Raymond Olivier designed a flight-friendly meal for the French airline UTA in 1973. Dryness was overcome with his sauce-drenched French classics — coq au vin, veal in cream sauce and beef bourguignon.

Today, you'll have to leave the land of pretzels and hot dogs to find a gourmet (read: edible) in-flight meal. The "largest site about airline catering" compares hundreds of menus, and it's clear our domestic carriers don't cater to gastronomes.

De Syon argues in-flight food is "a staple of the flight ritual," but if the promotional pitch is now a way to bail out the airline industry, how much longer will it last? Has flying become routine enough for us to pass on peanuts?