WHY IS AIRLINE FOOD SO TERRIBLE? Surprise! You are partly to blame -- along with airline managers who labor under the illusion they are in the transportation business when they're not.
By Monci Jo Williams REPORTER ASSOCIATE Charles A. Riley II

(FORTUNE Magazine) – AN AXIOM of the food service business holds that a chef can hide anything under a sauce. As any veteran flier knows, the chefs who devise those airline meals not only can -- but often do. Lurking beneath that glutinous gravy is meat (origin unknown); gray, ancient-looking peas; a few sad, spindly grains of rice. And don't forget the inevitable hockey-puck hard rolls suitable for use as a blunt instrument. What is this stuff masquerading on your plate as food? Why, for Pete's sake, didn't you leave your tray table in its upright position? And why, oh why, is airline food so bad? You may never get an answer to the first two questions, but here are a couple of reasons for the third. Believe it or not, fliers, you really don't care. That's what the airlines say you have told them. The other reason is related to the first: Airlines see no competitive advantage in offering you more sumptuous fare. In a 1984 survey by the International Airline Passengers Association, a consumer group of 100,000 frequent fliers, travelers ranked the quality of food and drink no higher than 11th on a list of 14 consumer concerns, far behind convenient schedules and low ticket prices. FORTUNE's own marketing survey of more than 700 subscribers this year confirms that food is a low priority for fliers (see table). If you don't let the food influence your purchasing decision, as the marketers say, why should the airlines improve the food? At its worst, airline food does meet the minimum standard for edibleness -- you do eat it, don't you? According to a recent survey conducted for the Inflight Food Service Association, the industry group for the people who furnish the meals, most fliers believe the food has maintained its quality or improved in the nine years since deregulation. Last year U.S. airlines spent $1.6 billion, or 3.5% of operating expenses, to feed passengers on flights originating in the United States. In 1978 the amount was $726 million, or 3.4% of operating expenses. Executives at many airlines and in-flight food service companies refused to be interviewed, one of them explaining that a recent episode of food poisoning on a Northwest Airlines flight made the subject particularly sensitive. But a few chefs and food service managers cited the survey data ranking food low in priority as evidence that the meals they serve don't need improvement. Not so, says Michael Marchant, president of the Inflight Food Service Association and vice president of Ogden Allied Food Services, which caters to international carriers. Marchant believes the airlines are misreading the surveys. He says that once a passenger is strapped into an airline seat and trapped for an hour or more, ''his first few priorities -- getting to his destination and getting there at a reasonable price -- are being satisfied. Now, for as long as he is on that plane, the passenger wants service, and good food is part of that.'' This brings us to the second reason for airline food's mediocrity: management. Some airline executives labor under the misapprehension they are in the transportation business, when their real business is providing service. They are not simply carting cattle from one place to another; they are in the business of providing a satisfying experience, with all that this entails in terms of comfort, convenience, and, let's hope, that certain je ne sais quoi. Yet if the truth be known, the carriers would rather not feed the customers at all. Says an executive at a major airline: ''It's one of those things that if the other guy didn't do it nobody would.'' PLANES, which are essentially narrow metal tubes, are not ideal venues for restaurants. The environment can be downright inhospitable for food, not to mention people. About half the cabin's air comes in through the superhot engines, which suck out all moisture before the air is cooled for use in the plane. That's what makes for those hockey-puck dinner rolls and, incidentally, for contact lenses that dry out and adhere to your eyeballs. Because the galley is too small to hold more than a little refrigerator and a couple of convection ovens, there isn't room for chefs, sous chefs, and sauciers to run around stirring the pot. Food is prepared on the ground hours ahead of time, usually by Marriott, Sky Chefs, and the other service outfits, but occasionally by the airlines themselves (United has its own kitchens in 15 cities). That mysterious meat and those itty-bitty peas are partly cooked, cooled, and crammed into those undersize oblong casseroles that the trade calls ''dog dishes.'' (No wonder the food looks so unhappy.) The dog dishes are frozen, then covered with aluminum foil, loaded onto a cart, and stored until it is time to wheel them out to your plane, where they are unloaded and reloaded in the galley. About 15 minutes before mealtime, they are reheated and unloaded onto another cart for cabin attendants to roll up and down the aisles against the streams of passengers on their way to and from the head. Yessir, it's tough dishing it out at 30,000 feet. But some international carriers -- among them Swissair, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines -- do a terrific job. That's partly because they can afford to spend more to feed you. They operate longer, more profitable flights than domestic lines do, and some are subsidized by their governments. Though Swissair is not subsidized, it considers itself an ambassador of its country. Says Willy H. Sayer, manager of catering: ''Many of our travelers are tourists, and the flight is their first impression of Switzerland. We want them to have a good one.'' Even the best meal aboard a plane will not equal what you'd get in a top- notch restaurant. But, says Sayer, ''it can come close.'' One current economy- class menu on an $811 flight from New York City to Geneva includes beef tenderloin, duchess potatoes, and rum cake. A first-class ticket on Swissair's Geneva flight costs $1,896, and the menu includes caviar, goose liver with fennel and raspberry sauce, roast loin of veal sliced from the cart, followed by cheese and port. The leisurely three-hour repast costs the airline an astounding $99.97 per person, not including the cost of the wine. ON DOMESTIC flights, first and business classes are more profitable than economy, and the food is better than it is in steerage to lure top-paying passengers. Some domestic carriers have chosen to distinguish themselves by their service. For example, Midwest Express, a small airline headquartered in Milwaukee and owned by Kimberly-Clark, the paper producer, runs flights that average about two hours and charges full fares with very few discounts. Flight attendants actually bake chocolate chip cookies on the plane, and the odor wafts through the cabin. Says John Farrer, manager of dining services: ''We want to show the airline cares.'' The major U.S. carriers spent an average of $4.21 per meal per passenger during the third quarter of 1987, the last period for which figures are available, but Midwest spends $9. Dinner consists of a salmon tartar appetizer, braised grouse, and a charlotte russe for desert -- washed down with suitable and complimentary French wines. It seems obvious that food will never be the priority with airline travelers that safety, on-time arrivals and departures, and convenient flights are. Moreover, it is not clear that passengers would pay more for their tickets to get better food. But Midwest Express flights to such well-served cities as Boston, Dallas, and New York are frequently sold out, and Swissair's North Atlantic business is growing 7% a year. Airline executives who are slow to figure out that service sells may find themselves in for a nasty competitive surprise -- nastier, even, than the one waiting for you in your dog dish.