What’s the Deal with Airline Food? Like Actually?

Laura Vance

“Airplane!” 1980 movie poster. The birth of a unique and slightly painful sort of humor.

We’re all far too familiar with the universal jokes about chickens crossing roads that never fail to fall flat after the “to get to the other side” punchline. Although it can’t be completely credited to the renowned minds of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, I believe this genre of humor, commonly known as “dad humor,” was only encouraged by every father’s favorite movie: Airplane! The 1980 comedy is simultaneously the bane of every woman named Shirley’s existence, which is completely hilarious within itself.  But I digress.  


Much like the entirety of Airplane!’s script, I enjoy infamously lame and satirical jokes about “flying in from New York” (“boy are my arms tired!”) and the “I hardly know her” punchline. But as much as I find immeasurable joy in slightly awful dad jokes, I’ll never quite understand the bit about airline food. I think it’s supposed to be funny because a stewardess could accidentally serve kitty litter on a branded napkin and no one would be the wiser, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve never heard the punchline following “What’s the deal with airline food?” 

But really, what is the deal? You’d think after decades of passive-aggressive humor directed at the nature of airline food that someone would finally buckle down and do something about it – even chickens have convenient little coops that suppress their primal urges of crossing roads nowadays. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no airline has decided to serve human food just yet. 

However, I’m a proud economy woman, which means I am used to sitting in an unnaturally uncomfortable upright position – a position our bodies were simply not made to endure for more than a few seconds – at least once a year. So perhaps airline food is digestible for the lucky bourgeois who opt out of economy class (as not to taint themselves with the commoners), and the food I was presented with was actually a punishment for having musician parents that didn’t invest in Bitcoin. I’m not about to go on a rant about the effects of classism on society or anything like that; all I’m saying is that historically, this is how many revolutions have begun. 

I sound harsh, but my bitterness is well-deserved. I think you would feel passionate things about airline food as well if you had to endure what I faced this summer when a nice lady (who I now believe was being held hostage) gave me three options for my dinner. I have completely forgotten the other two, likely because even reading the descriptions of the meals made my stomach do that misleading thing where it makes you think you have appendicitis, but in all reality, all of your organs are shrinking and bloating in synchronized nausea. So naturally, I picked the option that made my organs shrink and bloat the least, which ended up being a glorified ham and cheese Lunchable in sheep’s clothing.  

The tactfully unnamed airline’s “Takeoff” Snackbox, aka the clandestine Lunchable.

I’m not a snob. In theory, I would be more than content to eat a clandestine Lunchable any time of the day. Besides, at the time, I was blissfully ignorant regarding the abominable plague of airline food. (Keep in mind that I was sixteen, naïve, and unaware of serious worldly matters, meaning I was foolishly convinced that the reputation surrounding airline food was nothing more than a harsh anecdote.) 

I’m no snob when it comes to cheese, either. Some people are, and I suppose it is their right to have a completely useless passion. But I’m fairly easily pleased with the product, whether it was grown in a lab and spelled with a backward “Z” or not. (I’m getting personal, but I used to eat the individually wrapped Kraft cheese slices for dinner, much to the chagrin of my mother. I feel this accurately demonstrates my tolerance level when it comes to products that border between real cheese and yellow, square-shaped chemicals.) This tolerance was tested and ultimately failed when I partook of a discolored paste that was insultingly labeled with the word “Cheddar.” It was meant to be a spread on the cardboard crackers that popped a brace or two off my teeth, and I regret to say that after one taste, my love for cheese had met its end. And I haven’t even talked about the meat yet. 

The sheer smell of the bologna was the blow that finished Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. Somehow, the stench wove its way through my N-95 mask, and I credit much of my current vegetarianism to enduring through the lingering cloud of bologna fumes for the remainder of my flight. I could taste the thick aroma of aged meat with every inhale — it consumed my every thought, my very existence. I’m genuinely surprised that the oxygen masks didn’t drop down as the stench successfully choked every passenger. 

And there, at the very bottom of my meal parcel, was a mini Toblerone bar. She was a melancholy and pitiful thing, rolling around in the bottom of my faux Lunchable box in her sad, little way. No bigger than my pinkie finger, she was made up of three, infinitesimal triangles of nutty Swiss chocolate. She goaded me to partake of the triangles, but after choking down a cracker coated in that atrocious cheese/wax hybrid, the concept of abandoning the entirety of the $10 Snackbox for a tiny piece of chocolate was too dehumanizing for me to handle. I felt too sorry to eat it.  

The entirety of the meal was vulgar and insulting. Sure, I didn’t throw hundreds of extra dollars at the tactfully unmentioned airline’s feet to get a squishier chair and not have to breathe the same air as the middle class. But I honestly didn’t expect to be ostracized for it in such a manner. 

 I also ate the whole thing because I was hungry.  

I guess all of this is to say that sensitive topics like airline food shouldn’t be joked about. Nothing about that experience was funny. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it was genuinely traumatizing. It’s phenomenal how no progress has been made about a topic that has spiraled into severe infamy. Honestly, you’d think that after this long it wouldn’t taste so plane.