Steve Derebey, Captain, Major Airline. Boeing 777 International Operations.
We have “special” meals. Our crew meals are, by contract, allegedly the same as a first class meal, but in reality, they are nowhere close. After 35 years, and at least 6 cases of food poisoning, other than in extreme and controlled circumstances, I won’t consume a “crew meal.” I have no doubt that the kitchens are safe, but, once the meal leaves the kitchen, all bets are off.
The “chillers” on our airplanes rarely chill to a “safe” temperature of 41 degrees F. More often, they range from 50F to 70F. I know, because I’ve taken a restaurant-grade thermometer, and measured, myself. When I have written them up, maintenance just “defers” them.
International meals are somewhat better, but still sorely lacking in quality. Before each flight, I make sure that I am properly nourished, and have with me enough “back up” food so that, if the crew meal is spoiled or inedible, I can survive until I get to the destination. You would think that this would be a high priority, as blood sugar and proper nutrition are such a huge part of pilots’ lives.
The safety of the flight is at stake but, after all, it does cost money to feed people properly.
A few years ago, the major carrier for whom I work decided that they could save a lot of money by catering two, three and sometimes four legs at once. If, for example, an aircraft was going from San Francisco to Chicago and on to Newark, they could cater meals for both legs in San Francisco, thereby eliminating the need for catering (as well as the catering jobs) in Chicago. It was much cheaper.
Sounds good, (except for the part about eliminating jobs). But the problem is that the food is prepared in the kitchen hours before the plane leaves San Francisco. It sits on a catering truck that is loaded with meals for several different aircraft. That truck has to drive from the offsite kitchens to the airport, clear inspection before being admitted onto the tarmac, and then cater several flights. By the time the food gets put on the airplane, often up to an hour or more before takeoff, it has already been sitting in the truck, in the hot sun, on the highway or on the tarmac, for several hours. Now, imagine how long it sits before it gets heated on the plane and served, particularly after the 4½ hour flight to Chicago, the hour or two that it takes to unload the plane, clean it, do a security sweep, board the passengers for Newark, close up, push back and take off.
Chillers are cooling units on the aircraft designed to blow cold air through small air vents into a cart full of food. Ideally, the cold air should be at 40°F (5°C) or below. But often the chillers aren’t working properly, and blow warm air… sometimes as warm as 60°F (16°C). Or, the cart is so overstuffed with food (remember we’re catering multiple legs here) that the cold air can’t circulate properly. Frequently, the chillers aren’t even working at all. Instead of taking the aircraft out of service to get them repaired, the problem is simply deferred until regular scheduled maintenance… often months in the future.
(You see, an aircraft that is on the ground isn’t making money. It’s more profitable to keep the aircraft flying, and if someone gets sick, well… they can’t really prove that it was airline food that made them sick, can they?)
Remember that space in an airplane galley is extremely limited. So in order to cater two, three or four legs at once, everything has to be consolidated. Often, serving a meal requires “unpacking” a cart that may have thirty or more or meals stacked into a space meant for ten meals. The food must be separated and redistributed among the trays so it can be served. With such limited space, there’s no counter space to unpack. So we use the tops of carts (unwashed and unsanitary), oven shelves, jump-seats, and even the floor to stack trays, dishes and wrapped food; there simply is no other option. I used to use linens as a “buffer” between the dirty cart tops and the food, but in the interest of saving money on laundering, linens are no longer boarded on the planes.
As a Flight Attendant, I always warn pilots if the chillers aren’t working properly, or if their food has already traveled on two or three legs before they get it. Indeed, most crew that I know don’t often eat the airline food. (Years ago, it was a different story; the food was much better quality, fresh. But now, kitchens give us the “throw away” food, the cheapest stuff they can get away with. Often the containers of hummus, sauces, dips, salad dressing, fruit, etc. are past the expiration date!)
My suggestion, even for First Class passengers: Eat before you board. If you think you’re going to need food, bring some with you. I am always happy to heat up your sandwich, pizza or even a full meal that you bring with you.
After all, it’s an airplane, not the Ritz Carlton. You’re not missing anything by bringing your own. Lower your expectations and play it safe!
That’s my input. If you’re interested in reading more, the following is an anecdote that deals with this whole food issue.
I’m sorry if I sound cynical or even bitter. The safety of the food issue (or lack thereof) has been a particularly sore point for me… one that I and many other Flight Attendants have complained long and hard about, ranted about to management and tried to get resolved. We’ve gotten nowhere. In fact, I’ve been admonished for my efforts, and told that my job is to simply serve the food. Believe me, there isn’t a restaurant in the country that would be allowed to do what airlines regularly get away with and still remain open.
I remember a 4-leg trip a few years ago from Denver to Seattle and on to Anchorage, where it “turned” and flew back to Denver, also through Seattle. The aircraft was catered in Denver for all four legs. When I boarded the aircraft in Anchorage, the inbound crew advised me that the chillers were inoperative, they had been deferred the week before. The meal was a “midnight snack” of cold prawns, deli slices of cheese and meat, hummus and pickled vegetables. When I opened the warm carts, the food had obviously ‘turned’. It smelled sour and ‘off’, particularly the prawns. So I decided not to risk the health of the First Class passengers, and I explained to them why I wasn’t serving it. Some wrote complaints to management, not about me but about the broken chillers. One passenger was pretty clear in how she felt about an airline that would so readily endanger the health of their passengers to save a couple of bucks. As a result, I was severely reprimanded. I was told that I’m not a food expert, and have no business determining what food is fit or not fit to eat. I was advised to keep my “opinions” to myself and do my job… that is, just serve the meal and let the company deal with any backlash or fallout.