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updated 7/12/2010 9:27:50 AM ET 2010-07-12T13:27:50
opinion

Airplane food has a usually justifiably bad rap: it looks bad, it tastes bland, it's smashed into little compartments and then tossed onto your tray table — and now the FDA says it may be unsanitary and unsafe as well.

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There's been a lot of uproar in the media over this, but really — are we surprised? The FDA inspectors (and most folks surprised by this news) must never have seen the movie "Airplane!" — now 30 years old and labeled one of the best movies ever made by the New York Times and others, go figure. The entire plot of the unlikely blockbuster hit is set off by bad airplane food.

Surely (don't call me...), you can argue that conditions on the average airplane ride have deteriorated since the 1980's — planes are smaller, fuller and more tightly configured to squeeze more seats in. The sheer number of people subsequently cramming into those seats has created demand on a scale that would overwhelm almost any provider along the service chain — and preparing millions of meals is no exception.

So perhaps you are not surprised; Oliver Beale probably would not be either. Beale was the author of the letter to Richard Branson that launched last year's buzz-creating airline food story, a 1,000-plus word screed (accompanied by photos to boot) attacking the quality of the food (and the movie) on a Virgin flight from Mumbai to Heathrow in late 2008.

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The quality of the movie screen is a shame, I admit, but as Beale said (in what I would consider almost a tautology): when it comes to airline food, just look at the stuff. Most people I know only eat an actual meal on long-haul flights, and then primarily so they don't pass out from low blood sugar and take a header in the aisle during deboarding.

(In light of the latest news, one line of Beale's letter takes on a new ability to shock: "It's your hamster Richard. It's your hamster in the box and it's not breathing." Unfortunately, if the FDA reports are to be taken literally, it might well be a rodent that you are looking at on your tray table — or part of one, in any case.)

When news of Beale's letter first broke with the definitive headline of "best airline complaint letter ever," I laughed along, but couldn't help but think the author (and the media and Branson as well) chose to pick and chew the low-hanging fruit. When Beale wrote his letter in late 2008, a time when even the U.S. Congress was finally talking about a passenger rights bill, a complaint about airline food gets the headlines — really? Personally I'd rather have bad airline food than a tarmac stranding without any food. It's not like there weren't any strandings; in April 2008 alone, there were over 150 strandings of three hours or more, according to Flyersrights.org. And that was just business as usual; in late 2006, a string of strandings lasting 12 hours and more riled the industry — although not much was done about it until very recently (see Airline Passengers Get New Bill of Rights for more).

Why do you think Branson latched on to that letter? Precisely because it was about airplane food. Notice you don't see Branson making personal calls to the 300 passengers the airline stranded on an airless, lightless plane in Hartford a couple of weeks ago. People passing out and needing medical attention in the middle of the night isn't funny, and no PR machine can turn that one around, even Branson's. But the food we can all laugh about, and so Branson called Beale on the phone, playing the celebrity hero and the celebrity goat at the same time — and made a customer service failure into a PR triumph.

So food is the least of our worries when entrusting the airlines with our bodies and hearts by boarding a plane. And let's be realistic. Have you ever worked in a restaurant, or taken a good look at a busy kitchen? Suffice it to say that by the end of the business day, most kitchens are anything but a sanitary zone — some porta-johns are probably more hygienic. The airline catering companies have said as much, noting that their health standards are higher than those at most restaurants. That doesn't make code violations OK or even safe, but it does put things into perspective somewhat.

Or give some thought to what's in the hot dogs at the ballpark, or the sausages at breakfast or the scrapple at the diner. If we're really worried about mice eating the scraps at the catering facility, we might want to stop eating the scraps (why do you think they call it "scrapple"?) that comprise some of our favorite foods.

And then of course there are all the exposes (such as "Fast Food Nation" and "Food, Inc.") about conditions in chicken and beef supply companies, restaurants' "chef's specials" that are often desperate attempts to unload expiring food stock, and even fast-food restaurants where teenage employees purposely prank unsuspecting customers — but to be honest, these stories keep very few people from pulling into the drive-in now and then to quiet a growling belly.

All of that said, the sheer number of meals these companies produce does give pause — the top three aircraft catering companies make upwards of 100 million meals each year.

That's equivalent to about a third of all the lunches eaten on any given day by the population of the United States. If a super-bug of some kind were to infiltrate a system of this size, there could be a whole lot of folks sick all at the same time — resulting in an "Airplane!"-like scenario all through the flight system. And that wouldn't be so funny.

So what to do with the FDA's news? Few airlines serve food on any but the longest flights these days, and some avoid it entirely, such as Southwest — and the lack of food on Southwest flights hasn't hurt the airline's popularity with frequent travelers. If those passengers can go without, perhaps everyone else can as well.

Personally, I almost always prefer to get some nourishment before I get on a plane, as once you are onboard, food service is notoriously unpredictable in more ways than one. You never know what you are going to get, if it will be enough food actually to keep hunger pangs at bay or even if it will come during a rare nap such that you are not fed at all. Though there is no guarantee that conditions at the airport pizza joint are much better than those at the airline catering facility, at least you know and can see what you are getting before it is your only option.

Clearly, if you're doing a long-haul flight to Asia or Australia, or even to Europe, avoiding airplane food entirely is probably not an option. You can minimize your contact by packing snacks and eating before you board, and then you have to hope for the best.

But in the end, for my money, beefs about the beef (let alone the fish) on planes are surely the least of our concerns.

Video: FDA: Airline food prep unsafe

  1. Transcript of: FDA: Airline food prep unsafe

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Venice, Louisiana): for years about how airlines have cut out serving food in the skies. You might feel thankful after you hear this next story. The FDA has found the three main suppliers of airline meals all operating under unsafe, unsanitary conditions, including cockroach infested food prep areas and bad employee hygiene. The biggest company here, LSG Sky Chefs -- we've all seen their catering trucks at the airport -- they said they've taken steps to fix the problems.

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