50s – 60s airline cuisine

50s/60s Airline Cuisine

Ready Meals & In-flight Service

Which came first, airline food or TV dinners? An american noted the way airplane food was presented and it gave him the idea to package a convenience meal for the freezer and the TV dinner began life.

Strangely, airplane food is not was it used to be. Probably the last thing on the minds of brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright was to pack a hamper for their legendary flight, although one wonders how they would have coped when they did get peckish across all that salty air. The fact is that when domestic flights began, comfort was always the selling point and food in the early days was not unlike that of a good restaurant.

Over the years the meal onboard has become less of a priority and more of a functional experience. However what still sets one airline from the next is the meal you will eat on your flight. Us humans are peculiar when it comes to opening little packets, it’s like a mini Christmas on a tray.

If you fly a lot or have a fetish for airplane food then this Airline Meals website is great for you. It’s a site setup to record meals, and discuss individual airline menus. The photos are great and the site is extremely popular with flyers, making current airlines take note. Next time you fly, take a photo of your food tray and upload it with your comments.

Trans World Airlines (TWA) were one of the first in the public air transportation business. The same thing had happened for railways in a previous era when railway providers had realised that paying passengers reaped higher reward than commercial freight transportation. In the airline industry it was the American business tycoon Howard Hughes that propelled the notion that air travel was a routine way to travel, Hughes himself, completing a round-the-world flight in 1938.

TWA -One of the most famous names in early passenger aviation history – began in the early nineteen-thirties when the U.S. government, requiring to consolidate it’s mail network, merged Western Air and Transcontinental Air Transport to form one concern called Transcontinental and Western Air. In 1939 Howard Hughes became TWA’s principle shareholder and moved the airline swiftly away from mere mail cargo. He introduced a new fleet of aircraft and was contracted by the U.S. government to fly to exotic international destinations. With this global reach Hughes rebranded the airline in 1950 to Trans World Airlines.

The 1950s was a notable time for TWA in that it followed its main rival Pan Am into the jet age and was one of the first to order the Boeing 747. TWA were first to fly it on a domestic route, just one month after Pan Am had been first to fly it internationally. By the end of the decade Hughes had lost control over the airline. Due to his notorious reclusiveness, TWA filed a suit against Hughes and in 1961 absolute legal control of TWA was prised from him and he off-loaded all the remaining stock in the company by 1965.

In 1961, TWA was the first airline to introduce in-flight movies and by 1967 it had acquired Hilton Hotels to complement its travel portfolio. TWA had rivaled the world’s number one transatlantic airline Pan Am, but from here on the company would be taken downhill by bad management, a take over and bankruptcy.

Not long after government de-regulation in 1978, the airline underwent a take over in 1985 by another American Billionaire Carl lcahn, who bought up most of the TWA stock – he is known for squeezing short term profit from companies he holds. Pan Am had financial problems and went out of business at the start of 1991, although TWA acquired Pan Ams international routes, by January 1992 TWA was bankrupt and had to sell some of its key routes.

In January 1993, Carl Icahn finally relinquished all control over the company, Funds managed today (March 2015) by Carl lcahn at Icahn Capital Management were valued at $32.1 billion. With the leaving of Carl Icahn, TWA’s financial position had improved within just a few years and in 1998 it expanded its routes and flights and made the largest acquisition in its history by purchsing 125 new aircraft. However, this rapid expansion led to bankruptcy again and the airline could not survive alone so it was rescued and its assets purchased by American Airline in April 2001. The last official TWA flight was1st December 2001.


Pan Am

Pan Am was founded in 1927 by Juan Terry Trippe as a US-Cuba mail service. And by 1950, when it changed its name to Pan American World Airways, it began the first concept of “economy class” (until then, it was all First Class) and was operating routes all over the world.

It was at this time that food really made Pan Am stand out from other airlines. Air hostessess were expected to learn silver service and prepare seven courses of French cuisine from scratch.

There were hors d’oeuvres including lobster, prawns and beluga caviar, and main courses like lobster thermidor.

Everything was served on china plates with silver cutlery and linen napkins, and poured fine wines into crystal glasses.

After dinner stewardessess would hand out liqueurs and free Camel or Marlboro cigarettes so there was always a thick fug of smoke on board the planes.

The airline eventually went bust in 1991, having set the standards for travel luxury.

In 1958, it brought in the beginning of the “jet age” with its Boeing 707 (above) and the first transatlantic jet service New York to Paris. Of course, this also began the era of the Glamorous and very Fabulous Pan Am Stewardesses to serve your food to you.

Pan Am Boeing 707 Promo Film – 1959>

Pan Am “Rainbow” meal from the 1950s.

Did you know that Pan Am stewardessess always had to wear a girdle, which was checked with a bottom pinch from a supervisor before every flight.

In-flight catering

There’s a scientific reason why airlines pay so much attention to in-flight meals. True that in the twenties and thirties when passengers were lumped in with mail flights, passenger comfort was not de rigueur. But once airlines realised the potential of domestic air routes, they wanted to rival the comforts that were the domain of passenger liners at sea.

For a time, the most excellent food was prepared on flight complete with tablecloths and chinaware. With the arrival of jet planes and increased passenger capacities, meal were pre-cooked on ground by the airline or food contractor and re-heated in flight, as it remains today.

The image of a waiter in white coat serving your lunch quintessentially belongs to the golden age of flight. However, food is still served for the same reasons, it relaxes you on your flight and staff are trained to offer you food if you are becoming stressful. In fact your sense of taste changes when you are at 30,000 feet so researching the right food to compliment your flight has become a science.

The 1960s were the true glory days of airline eating. With fully fitted heating facilities they were a far cry away from the tiny kitchenettes came with the first DC3. TWA were instrumental in bringing the DC3 to its first passenger flights, Pan Am flew it first but TWA flew it just a month later and was the first to fly it on domestic use. It was the DC3 with its spacious footprint that allowed airline food to take a new direction, because the DC3 was the first airplane specifically designed for passenger only travel. TWA even featured Beluga caviar and Nova Scotia salmon on their menu, but the real extravagance was yet to come during the Concorde years.

1950s – Braniff International Airways were an American airline operating from 1930 to 1982, primarily in the midwestern and southwestern United States.

TWA 1959 – Photo: Airline Meals

Some random photos

photo source: Airline Meals

1960 photo source: Airline Meals


Lounging around: Passengers sit on comfy couches as a flight attendant serves coffee on a Braniff International airplane in 1967.




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Why do I crave tomato juice

Airlines did wonder how on earth they got through so much tomato juice on flights. The reason is a scientific one. For example, the German airline Lufthansa were serving 53,000 gallons of the stuff annually, compared to 59,000 gallons of beer. So Lufthansa hired a research institute to study it.

Researchers found that tomato juice at ground level tastes earthy and not very fresh but at 30,000 feet, it has more acidity and a mineral taste making it more refreshing.

The cause is that cabin pressure being low at high altitude means blood gets less oxygen, making olfaction and taste less sensitive. Cabins are kept at between 10 to 15 percent humidity which dries the nose and mouth, so food tastes less sweet and salty than it is and herbs and spices get blurred. This is on reason airline food has received a reputation for being bland. However, tomato juice actually improves in taste.

Reaserchers from the German institute, the Fraunhofer Society, put subjects in a flight simulator of an Airbus A310. They served them food and drink and found that passengers consistently rated tomato juice as tasting better in the fake airplane than in a normal environment. What was perplexing to researchers was why, because passengers do not know that tomato juice tastes any different at altitude.

They realised that there were many reasons bringing the highlighted taste to the fore. Some want something between a drink and a meal especially if the airline meal was not to their taste, so tomato juice fits that bill. some say it settles the stomach and helps with air sickness, others see someone else drinking it in a seat in front of them and think “why not”. It’s a combination of all these things, the body’s biological triggers to select the better tasting drink subcontiously, similar to why pregnant women have the urge to eat coal because they are lacking certain vitamins and nutrients.

Drinks on a plane

Perhaps drinks were on planes since day one. One imagines pilots on the original mail routes taking a tipple to warm them through long flights. Since the evolvement into passenger planes, alcoholic drink was provided to calm down passengers when needed and it was free of charge. Once TWA brought in the first in-flight movies to distract passengers, airlines could no longer afford to hand out free alcohol and so it began to generate income for the airline as well as calm passengers. Even Thomas Cook Airlines offer champagne on their short-haul flights to accompany a menu designed by celebrity chef James Martin.

According to the Food Republich website, these are the top 8 airlines for drinking ethos, on planes:

Virgin Atlantic
Singapore Airlines
Etihad Airways
Air France
Cathay Pacific
Japan Airlines
South African Airlines
Malaysian Airlines

Fact: Each day eight million passengers take to the air.

Can you take your own alcohol on a plane?

Generally, alcohol can be brought on planes in carry-on bags just like other liquids, as long as it’s in a bottle containing 3 ounces or less and placed in a plastic bag. It’s best to check with the airline in advance on their alcohol policy, especially if you are travelling to a muslim country with restrictive rules on alcohol.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration ( a U.S. flight regulations authority,) it’s illegal for passengers to drink any alcoholic beverage that has not been served to them by a certified airline member. The logic is that your flight attendants are basically on bartender duty and need to keep your libations to a safe level.

Just because you can bring alcohol on the plane doesn’t mean you can drink it. According to the Code of Federal Regulations (An American authority,) no person may drink any alcoholic beverage aboard an aircraft unless the certificate holder operating the aircraft has served that beverage to him. In the U.S. this means that unless your alcohol was from the in-flight drink cart, you are breaking federal law if you decide to drink your own.

How safe is airline water?

Some studies from Japan to the Netherlands have found unfriendly bacteria in the tank water, including E. coli and the germ that causes Legionnaire’s disease. Studies from America to Australasia found Salmonella, Staphylococcus and tiny insect eggs. Some water was found to contain ‘Pasteurella pneumotropica’, a bacteria carried by rodents.

The good news is that passengers do not normally use the tank water which is reserved for toilets and washing. Passengers drink bottled water. Unless you are washing your teeth from the taps you have nothing to fear. Airline staff drink from bottles and they tell that when bottled water runs out, they will offer canned distilled water, and when that runs out or if there is none on board, they will serve tap water.

In the U.S. there are federal regulations that are supposed to provide drinkable water on a plane. The Federal Aviation Administration requires onboard tanks to be flushed every 12 to 14 months. Once water is onboard it falls under Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which requires airlines to clean tanks quarterly and confirm their water complies with federal standards. There is no pilicing or monitoring by any organisation and airlines are left to blindly comply on trust.

To learn more about cocktails of the era visit the Cocktails & Martinis page and the Cocktails recipes page

One guy runs an airplane drinks website, rather like the ‘airline meals’ website mentioned above, but for drinks. Visit the site here.

Concorde Cuisine

Once into the flight the flight attendants distributed menus for brunch and drinks, along with free champagne and canapés. The food was selected by Michel Roux among other chefs and was quite extensive. This was a menu to match the experience, after all concorde flew at almost double the standard jet height, cruising at altitudes reaching 60,000 feet at 1,350mph, just twenty minutes into the flight.

The choice of wines and champagnes was staggering by other airline standards as well as offering aperitifs, spirits, digestifs and liqueurs. Cocktails included the Margarita, Manhattan, Whiskey Sour, Piña Colada and aptly the ‘Supersonic Boost’ made with Orange juice, pineapple juice and Grenadine (no alcohol it seems). Surprising to see on the menu were vegetarian and kosher food options.

In total, 20 Concordes were built and 14 flew commercially, 7 for France and 7 for Britain. Concorde 001 (built in France) made its first test flight on March 2nd 1969.