Inflight meals, almost a thing of the past apart from long-haul international routes, have an interesting history and used to be a gourmet feature. Inflight meals had humble beginnings, however. The first offerings occurred before 1920 on the airline that would later become British Airways. It was on the London to Paris route and amounted to a selection of small fruits and sandwiches and had to be purchased by the passengers.
As the years progressed, point-to-point airline service and the era of jet travel were in full swing. Airlines needed to differentiate their service from one another to compete effectively. Inflight dining became a major platform for competition. Meals became more elaborate as well. From three course economy-class meals to seven course gourmet first-class meals prepared in ovens on board by certified chefs. Other offerings became available as well. Religious and cultural meal options became widely available, such as: Kosher, Halal, and Buddhist, and cuisines such as Indian, French, and Japanese. Meals for those with medical concerns were provided such as low-sodium or diabetic offerings. During this period, plates and silverware as well as glassware were provided to the passengers as opposed to the plastic varieties normally seen today (with the exception of long-haul first class dining). Fine dining on a grand scale was available on board the Concorde during this period with several courses offered. A particular meal may include items such as: Black truffle, prawn nicoise, and grilled filet of veal.
Enter deregulation. As ticket prices fell, airlines began to roll back the services and higher-quality items that were provided. Food quality suffered and plastic became a mainstay. Even first-class dining suffered. Passengers began to have to purchase alcoholic beverages and other items as well. After the September 11th attacks, the financial losses suffered by air carriers caused even further cutbacks on dining. Meals on US domestic routes in economy class disappeared and were replaced with pretzel or peanut packages and one soft drink or water.
Inflight meals are making a comeback with higher quality meals being offered and American Airlines set to offer complimentary economy-class meals on select domestic routes in the US by the end of 2017. Other new developments include Kentucky Fried Chicken being offered on one airline based in Asia and an Eastern European Airline that allows you to fully customize your meals when purchasing your ticket. We will see what the future holds for inflight dining, but hopefully the current trend will continue.