CHICAGO — United Airlines tried five different sausage recipes and 36 pretzel buns before settling on the combination that made its way to in-flight menus this month — a smoked beef and pork link slathered with South Carolina-style barbecue sauce and roasted onions.
It took more than 200 hours over the course of a year to develop the sandwich, which it created with the chef at Chicago’s Lillie’s Q.
Airlines know passengers aren’t picking flights because they prefer one carrier’s short rib to a rival’s ravioli.
And most coach passengers on domestic flights still have to pay if they want more than a small snack, although complimentary meals are available on a handful of the longest cross-country flights.
But food is a key part of the passenger experience, and airlines have been making investments in recent years. That includes partnering with outside chefs, offering more choices and mining data on passengers’ likes and dislikes.
Feeding customers at 35,000 feet brings challenges terrestrial restaurants don’t have to deal with.
Dishes need to hold up after being chilled and reheated in flight. Flight attendants, who handle final food prep, are busy and are not chefs.
And even gourmet food suffers in flight, where low air pressure and dry air dull flavors.
Cooking for an airline was “drastically different,” said Charlie McKenna, chef and owner of Lillie’s Q. “There’s a lot more technical things to manage.”
Taste isn’t just about what happens in your mouth. Smell matters, too.
Lower cabin air pressure means every breath carries fewer of the compounds that give food an aroma, and the dry air makes it tougher for your nose to pick up on them, said Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University.
Studies also have found that people may not perceive sweetness and saltiness as intensely when there’s loud background noise such as passengers experience in an airline cabin, he said. But that noise may boost the savory taste.
Airlines used to compensate by going heavy on the salt, but now they try to add more herbs and spices to bring out flavor, said Christian Hallowell, general manager of on-board food and beverage design at Delta Air Lines.
Gerry Gulli, executive chef at United, said he might slightly increase the amount of salt in a dish but mostly relies on marinades and rubs that infuse flavor.
United actually dialed back the heat on its sausage sandwich compared with one on Lillie’s Q’s menu because flavors also need to have relatively broad appeal.
Passengers still can taste the heat, but it won’t leave them jabbing the call button to summon the beverage cart. It’s served on a pretzel bun from Chicago’s Labriola Bakery.
The attention extends to beverages. Several airlines employ sommeliers to select wines serve in-flight, and Delta’s conducts tastings in the air as well as on the ground.
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There’s also the issue of turbulence to deal with, as it can interrupt food prep and mean meals sit in a convection oven longer than planned.