Feeling peckish? There's nothing like the experience of airline travel to make you feel hungry (sometimes through sheer boredom) and nothing like the sight and smell of much airline food to quickly extinguish your appetite. The logistical challenge of simply delivering 400 meals to tray tables throughout a 747, never mind heating them up in the first place, is pretty stiff.
Once they're in front of the passengers the food is struggling to impress not only with the ambience (plastic cutlery, tin pots and a neighbour's elbow in your nosh aren't usually high on a restaurant's list of desired attributes) but also with the fact that a person's ability to taste reduces by around 30% in the dry, air-conditioned, pressurised cabin. So the chef has to really ladle on the seasoning if their offering isn't to be flavourless.
The biggest in-flight catering company is Gate Gourmet which delivers, wait for it, 548,000 meals daily to 250 airlines in 25 countries (now you know why it all tastes the same whichever airline you fly!). That's 200 million meals a year. They tailor make the menu for each airline's requirements and produce food reflecting wide variety of cuisine traditions from British Airways to Thai Airways.
Despite the often patchy offerings, many airlines try hard to come up with good fare and some well known chefs have taken up the challenge of mile high catering. Aldo Zilli has worked with Thomsonfly, Michel Roux has advised BA, Peter Gordon (Providores) has helped Air New Zealand's menu, Gordon Ramsay has given advice to Singapore Airlines and Mark Hix (The Ivy) is on Virgin's catering panel. Hmmm, time for lunch...