Airline meals have been around almost as long as commercial flights - the first recorded example is in 1919 on flights between London and Paris. As the scale and volume of flying have increased, meals provision has changed. Being able to prepare food onboard has made an enormous difference. Today, of course, what you get depends very much on the airline and cabin, with massive variations in quality.

The earliest airline catering

Many early flights would not have had catering. These were small aircraft, and passenger travel in many places emerged alongside airmail services. The total weight carried by aircraft was also a major issue, and unnecessary items would be avoided. But it did appear early on some routes - especially in Europe. Cold food would be the norm. Travel and Leisure Magazine recalls some examples of this early catering, explaining:

"Selections typically included cold fried chicken, fruit salads, and elegantly composed sandwiches, served in wicker baskets on the lightest china wear servers could find."

Colonial Air Transport
Early short flights offered limited service. Photo: Getty Images

Longer flights and onboard kitchens from the 1930s

As aviation expanded, so did catering options. Flights soon became longer, and with regular scheduled international flights (with multiple legs), airlines needed to look at onboard food. The flying boats that served these longest routes began to be equipped with kitchens and often separate dining areas. Smaller aircraft would sometimes offer dining on the ground during stops. While the aircraft refuelled, passengers could be served meals in terminal or hangar buildings.

Boeing 314 Clipper GettyImages-89868852
Larger aircraft offered more space for food storage, preparation and dining. Photo: Getty Images

Long-haul flying in these days became luxurious - flatbeds, lounges and fine dining were standard. It was only later, with higher capacity jet aircraft, that real class differentiation and "economy" services were introduced. The Boeing 314 "Clipper" flying boats are a good example of this. These entered service with Pan Am in 1939 and offered hot food, of course, table service from white-coated waiters, and food often supplied by leading hotels.

Boeing 314 Clipper
Dining service onboard the Boeing 314 Clipper. Photo: Getty Images

Aircraft changes in the 1940s and 1950s

There were significant changes in aviation in the years after the Second World War. The luxuries of the flying boat era came to an end, with service moving to land-based aircraft, with new aircraft and airport developments.

The next major innovation in onboard catering was the introduction of frozen food. This gave airlines more options for catering and allowed high capacity catering. According to culinary historian and author Richard Foss, this was driven initially by military flying during the war. He writes:

"As soldiers would embark on flights to Europe, the US military began noticing that they weren't arriving in good physical condition due to the lack of what they were able to eat and drink with cold military rations. They figured out that good food was a necessity for morale and decided hot food was needed for soldiers and it needed to be produced economically, which is where the frozen meal came in."

Many airlines maintained luxurious and involved meal service, just with more options now that frozen meals could supplement fresh supplies. Flights were still long, and the dining experience became a big differentiator between airlines. Meals were often long affairs, with fresh food and options from dining carts.

Jets and higher capacity flying

Airline catering saw big changes from the 1960s. Aircraft such as the Boeing 747 changed the economics and availability of flying. Travel became more common and affordable, and new classes of services developed to support lower fares and a high volume of travellers. The other critical thing that changed with jets was that flying became faster. There was less need to entertain passengers with long and luxurious meals, and catering responded to this.

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Despite larger aircraft and more passengers, premium cabins retained lavish service. Photo: Getty Images

The economy class meal was made easier with the use of frozen meals. This allowed (as it still does today) a wider range with limited storage space and preparation facilities. Economy also saw the move to plastic and disposable items - no longer the china and glassware of old.

Nevertheless, first class and premium travel retained its edge. The 747 in particular even brought back some of the luxuries of the flying boat era, with many airlines using the extra space for lounges or dining areas. The upper deck of the 747-400 features some great spaces - including an executive restaurant with Pan Am, and the Captain Cook lounge with Qantas.

Qantas Captain Cook lounge
The Qantas Captain Cook lounge. Photo: Qantas

This is still much how food service remains today. Most airlines outsource food production to a catering company (such as LSG Sky Chefs or Gate Gourmet), then cook from chilled or frozen using onboard ovens.

Airlines meals
Airlines meals are prepared in large ground facilities and reheated onboard. Photo: Getty Imahes

Service and offerings in business and first class remains better, of course (though lacking the extravagance of earlier times) - but it is still prepared using the same reheating methods.

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Another change seen in recent years is the move to buy onboard and additional catering options. On shorter domestic and regional flights in many countries, it is now unusual to receive anything more than a bottle of water included in economy class. This began with low-cost airlines and has expanded to most legacy carriers as they look to complete better and drive critical ancillary revenue.

Whatever the future trends, catering (both included and additional)is something airlines are likely to keep paying attention to - predictions are that the inflight catering market will be worth $21.5 billion by 2024.

Do you have any memories of better food service in the past? What are your favourite airlines for meal options today? Let us know in the comments.

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