We’ve all been there: a long flight where there most certainly will be an included meal for everyone. Regardless of what you have planned for the ride (catching a movie you downloaded, finishing up a lengthy book, staring down at the screeching baby two aisles in front of you, etc.), the stewardesses will be on a mission plop down some plastic container of either fish or chicken down on your fold-out table.
And you eat it.
This is not because the airline chefs managed to dole-out prime-cut filet mignon for the entire plane or that they innately knew your specific dietary likes, dislikes, regulations, or restrictions. It is because the existing conditions in your current situation – namely, a higher altitude and an empty stomach – have convinced you to chow down on the pre-packaged meal that, in your mind, is equal parts savory and nutritious.
At a height of 30,000 feet in the air, the first of your senses to be affected are taste and smell. Flavor is a perception of both and our perception of saltiness and sweetness drop when inside a pressurized cabin. In the air, humidity drops below than 12% – drier than most deserts – which causes the sensitivity of taste buds for sweet and salty foods to drop 30%. The effect of this makes us believe that airline food is bland and flavorless.
But it is not thanks to one secret: proper seasoning. On the ground, airline food producers season meals way more than any normal person would care to eat on the ground. Coupled with convection ovens and pre-flight cooking techniques like sous vide, all it takes for a decent airline meal is the right amount of salt, pepper, and spices to keep the food at least somewhat bearable.
So the next time you’re staring at a plastic tray of food, be thankful that airlines are actively trying to make your experience as enjoyable as possible (despite the fact that they – like any successful company – are trying to get as much money from you as possible).