For those of you who thought you could get away with menus without humour, guess again. Here’s something Chef Randy, who was also a private pilot, wrote back in 2000 while he was traveling on business. Super Elite is one of those yin yang things: good benefits but you’re never home. This work is under copyright © 2000 and used with his permission. It was also written before most airlines stopped serving food, or worse, charge you for airline food, inspired by fast food restaurants. It was also written pre-9/11, so some jokes may be out of date. Please see the disclaimer, and as we say at Heck’s, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Look, we all know we’re going to burn for this, but it’s Heck’s Kitchen, after all.
The Frequent Traveler’s Diet Guide
How to Lose Weight and Gain Air Miles
Disclaimer: This is work in progress, as is digestion on an airplane. If you can’t take a joke, don’t read this. I’m not intending to offend ABSOLUTELY everyone or anyone. Any resemblances, to people, places, things, or airline manufacturers living or dead is purely coincidental and entirely in fun.
So you’ve decided that you’re going to travel. How wonderful. How romantic. How long do you expect thatfeeling to last? Or, perhaps, you’ve changed jobs, or have had a shift in responsibilities that means you will now be spending horrid amounts of time away from your family and friends; well, family anyway. You’ll find out that you have friends everywhere, particularly where you don’t want them. Feeling worse and slightly concerned now? I have only one reaction to your situation.
If you think you’re alone in this world of travel, you’ll soon find that you’re not. In fact, most people who travel experience many of the same problems, joys, and funny stories. If you think this book is going to help you solve problems directly, guess again. If it does, whatever you do, don’t blame me; it was purely accidental. This book is intended as a source of humour and commiserating. It is also the result of extensive and long-duration research (just look at my frequent flyer profile). In fact, I am extremely qualified to write this book, because I’ve been a passenger on commercial airlines for more than 30 years, live in a major North American city, with a major North American airport (when the radar is not taken down due to power failures) have lived through numerous delays, snow storms, wing icing conditions (a wonderful dieting technique, I might add) and have, with great fear and trepidation, eaten and gotten drunk at some of the worlds largest airports.
If you think this book is a work of pure fact, you’re living in a deluded fantasy. Of course, if you fly on commercial airlines, you already are living in a deluded fantasy, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Of course, some of the stories are frighteningly real, while others are total fiction. Many of the ideas presented here for either losing weight or staying healthy are well researched and valid, while others are described with tongue firmly planted in cheek, or the roof of your mouth, depending on the amount of turbulence I was feeling while writing this book from the back of an MD-80. It should be obvious, based on the tone of this work, that I have no intention of telling you what is true, and what is false. If you don’t know what’s a joke and what’s not, in this book, you don’t have enough frequent travel miles.
The Anatomy of an Airline Meal
Before being able to effectively develop a strategy for nutritious dining on an aircraft (assuming you can get a meal – which is discussed in the next chapter), you need to understand how airlines prepare meals and how they are presented to passengers.
Many food-related items available with an airline meal are delivered as original equipment with the aircraft from the manufacturer. Quality often varies between Boeing, Airbus, McDonnell-Douglas, and the struggling Fokker (to name a few of the large western companies). If you ever happen to be served anindividually pre-packaged roll or bun, you may want to look under the bun for the OEM seat designation number (for example 15A). This number is the actual seat number assigned to the bun during manufacturing. The airlines take great care to ensure that the bun is delivered as part of a meal to the correct seat. Incorrect bun assignment and the occasional, yet inevitable, bun over-booking, can cause a great deal of confusion for airlines. Fortunately, a 10% bun-no-return factor is planned for by the airlines so overbooking is rarely a problem. This results when someone actually eats the bun assigned to a particular seat. You can well imagine the chaos (known as birth pangs) for a new aircraft, which has fresh buns assigned to each seat, resulting from passengers who will actually risk consuming the assigned bun. Perhaps an appreciation of why there is such an incentive for airlines to serve stale buns, is now apparent: cost.
Where Do Airline Meals Come From, Anyway?
This is one of those questions that probably falls under the category “If you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question.” Have you ever noticed that many airlines will not permit boarding untilafter the meals have been loaded? This is because the airline does not want you to know about “Bob’s Caterers.” If you’ve kept your eyes open, however, you’ll have noticed that funny-looking truck that delivers mysterious metal boxes on wheels through the right side of the plane. Don’t worry, the in-flight crew has no more of an idea about what’s in them than you do. Well, perhaps you should worry. “Bob’s Caterers” also occasionally leases its trucks to the post office for mail delivery. At last, another explanation for why even the post-market buns are also stale!
Chicken or Beef?
You’re supposed to be surprised, right about now, that the airlines do not keep kitchens in every airport to which they fly. Airlines typically contract with local caterers or subcontract through other airlines for food services. In lay terms, this means that they occasionally have to beg, borrow, but never steal food from other airlines. This, of course, adds to the confusion of why the in-flight crew has only limited information about the food they serve. We’re all familiar with the painful look a flight attendant has when asking:
“Excuse me, but would you like chicken or beef?”
Seems like a simple question doesn’t it? The simplicity actually hides the fact that the in-flight crew has no idea what they’re actually serving. Of the choices of foods used by airlines, fish is no longer considered a good option. After the rash of airplane disaster and humour movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s presenting entire airplanes, or even entire cities suffering food poisoning from eating the same meal, fish is now generally avoided. Beef and chicken are, as a result, pretty safe guesses about what is being served, particularly if no food manifest is given to the crew.
Now, just imagine the utter chaos, confusion, and perplexed reaction you’d face if a flight attendant had to manage menus such as the following:
“Today’s menu selection includes: poulet Dijonnaise on a bed of fresh herbs and risotto Milanese; and escalope de veau au poivre”
Granted this occasionally happens in First Class, but the likelihood of this happening is remote. Well, if you’re at the airline’s main hub, you’ve got a fair chance.
Speaking of manifests, have you ever tried to ask what is in a meal before the flight takes off? This is a sure way to cause havoc for the flight crew because the time they take in a mad scramble looking for the more-than-likely nonexistent list of meals completely messes up the pre-flight responsibilities. This is known as the “mad manifest scramble”. It’s not a pretty sight. A no less vexing variation of this scramble occurs when a passenger asks about the ingredients of the meal while the meals are being served.
Is there a solution? Sure! Call ahead and arrange for a special meal. Ah, but wait, there’s the problem again of “Bob’s Caterers”. When all else fails, bring your own food. It’s likely to be safer. This, of course, leads right into the next topic.
Alternate Food Sources
To be fair to the airlines, an effort has been recently made to try to standardize food quality while, at the same time, reducing costs, which, if we’re gullible, is expected to reduce the cost of a ticket. You’re probably already seeing where this is going:
“Would you like fries with your boarding pass?”
The idea to use food suppliers who have presence in most cities is, in principle, a good one; certainly for the airlines. In practice, bidding wars have broken out for the very highly prized contracts of providing international food service for major airlines. The only companies who truly had a chance were the fast food chains. So now, instead of the luxury service of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the immortal phrase “coffee, tea, or milk”, we are left with, burgers and fries in a bag handed out at the gate before boarding. Now, if you’re one of those who carries-on baggage, because that’s really the only way to travel on business anyway, you not only have to be an expert in sales, business, software, or whatever you are really traveling for, you also have to be a circus performer who juggles a suit bag, briefcase, boarding pass, bag-o-burger & fries, a drink, and, if you’re lucky, a straw. A quick tally, and you’ll note that there are six items to juggle, which any expert juggler will tell you, takes about 20 years to master. This, curiously, is about how long it’s taken the airlines to downgrade their service from opulence to appalling. Do you think they might have been paid to help train us in these techniques for all those dog and pony circuses for which we all do most of our travel for anyway?
FAA Regulations Concerning Food, Explosives, and Weapons
You might think that there is a double-standard for passengers and airlines. Well, you’re right. There is. Passengers are specifically prohibited from carrying explosives, combustibles, and firearms on-board commercial aircraft. There is, regrettably, no such regulation for on-board meal preparation services. The typical airline breakfast, assuming one is actually served, is a prime example of this double standard.
Consider a typical Monday morning on your favourite airline. To try to beat the traffic, you woke up at 5:30 a.m., grabbed your briefcase – after all, it’s only a day trip – and drove frantically, and probably well above the speed limit, to make your 6:45 a.m. flight. No time for breakfast? Not to worry, your airline will be serving a fine hot or cold one in flight. What you neglected to remember, from your numerous previous experiences, probably resulting from selective amnesia due to trauma, is that the orange juice is downright dangerous. Finding breakfast placed in front of you on that ever so precarious tray table, you dive hungrily for the sealed, and slightly bulging orange juice container. At this point, you’re probably thinking “I don’t remember seeing a bulge in the orange juice container.” That’s because you’ve blocked that memory too. You remember trauma? With a careful grip you gently tear open the foil seal, in a motion curiously similar to the pulling of a pin out of a hand grenade, in anticipation of relief for your moisture-starved taste buds and throat. And with the most silent of puffs, orange juice drops distribute themselves, like shrapnel, all over your no-longer clean white shirt, and your neighbour’s slacks. Be glad that airlines now provide on-board telephones, so that you can call ahead to a department store to have them set aside new clothes. Do you now wonder why airports are attracting more and more clothing stores?
As many frequent fliers inevitably learn from talking with pilots, there is a long tradition of military-trained crews in commercial aviation. Many pilots flew fighter aircraft in the Korean or Vietnam Wars. Some pilots were even involved in the use of napalm. This familiarity, in part, lead to the development of another breakfast weapon known as napalm syrup. Napalm syrup, also known as hot table syrup, is probably packaged by an affiliate of the company that packages the orange juice. While the range of destruction is much more limited than that of the orange juice, the effects are rather striking. Second and third degree burns are possible from even brief skin contact with the clinging liquid. With properties similar to napalm, this substance burns for long periods, deeply penetrating the skin for increased effect, and is almost impossible to remove with water or alcohol (a substance readily available on most airlines, though at an increasing cost with each passing year). Whatever you do, however, do not, under any circumstances, allow this syrup to touch anything made of polyester.
There’s a Kitchen on Board?
It is truly a testament to the patience of air travelers and flight crews that fights do not break out resulting from the accidental releasing of the citrus-based munitions. However, in the tradition of many countries and cultures, as well as rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, airlines have provided suitable arms and defence armour, in one convenient package, for inter-passenger skirmishes. These packages, probably supplied through some creative arms dealer in Belgium, contain an amazingly wide array of multipurpose equipment and are a marvel of modern-day production. In order to provide hot meals on large aircraft, flight crews typically use convection ovens. These ovens are capable of efficiently generating amazingly high temperatures. Meals are heated and placed in metal boxes on wheels for distribution throughout the cabin. Obviously, to deliver hot meals to everyone on board, the food will have to either have a high capacity for heat to stay warm, or be overheated, or both. The first passengers could then burn themselves very easily on the hot food (see the discussion of Napalm above). This, of course, could be of use in case a skirmish breaks out on board.
Knives on the Plane
Fortunately, appropriate tools are readily available to rapidly cool down the food. These multipurpose, liquid nitrogen cooled, instruments are, of course, the metal cutlery. It’s truly amazing how quickly merely stirring a cup of hot tea briefly with one of those spoons can create iced-tea. But the true offensive weapon of the air is the service knife. Whether metal or plastic, these ever-sharp implements are highly effective at slicing through just about anything. They need to be, considering that they are needed to cut meat, chicken, and even the pasta delivered by “Bob’s Caterers.” FAA regulations, though, require that these knives be sealed in cut resistant containers so as not to fly about the cabin during takeoff and landing. Fortunately, there is one material capable of withstanding these dangerous instruments. Kevlar is used in the manufacture of many useful products in our lives: bullet-proof vests, cars, composite materials including some of those used in the construction of modern military aircraft, and, not surprisingly, airline cutlery bags. Light, tough, strong, and incredibly durable, not to mention biodegradable in a few million years, these cutlery bags are capable of containing the razor-sharp assault knives. This begs the question, however do you get the cutlery out of the bags? For answers to this question, please refer to the chapter on the in-flight workout [editors note: on a separate website]. Like many things on an aircraft, the cutlery bags are multi-purpose. The Kevlar bags can also be used for defence against attack by other irate passengers on whom you have spilled your food, possibly in the attempt to open the cutlery bag itself.
As a brief side note, principles of economy of scale, which are used often by the aerospace industry to keep costs down, have led to the use of those wondrous cutlery bags to contain emergency survival rations: the non-dairy creamer, napkin, sugar, and stir sticks. These packages are provided to passengers with their coffee and tea, even when cream and sugar are already added by a member of the, thankfully, tolerant flight crew. After years of trying, I am still perplexed as to how to open these bags without the aid of a razor sharp cutting instrument made of surgical steel.
Where Does Food Go after a Flight?
This is another one of those “you probably don’t want to know” topics. However, as responsible travelers, we should all be aware of where the food we have so meticulously avoided goes after the flight.
International flights are easily understood, because the solution used by airlines is rather elegant. Airlines have an arrangement with the local customs officials, employing special “constables” for the purpose of food removal and disposal. In fact, the DEA uses the same special constables for it’s own procedures to sniff out illegal recreational substances. Interviews with canine border officials have concluded, without any doubt, that these essential civil servants are fully capable of detecting, and efficiently disposing of, a wide range of consumables including food, drugs, slippers, cosmetic bags, and occasionally photographic equipment.
Domestic flights involve a much more complex relationship of supply and demand modeled after the automotive industry’s just-in-time supply lines. Of course, using the term “just-in-time” for an airline, may seem a bit inappropriate, particularly after being delayed for hours waiting for “Bob’s Caterers” to show up. Interesting that the subject of caterers should come up when talking about waste removal, no?
FAA Food Safety Regulations
The FAA has a number of regulations involving the serving of food on commercial flights. These regulations deal with matters including: when food must be served based on scheduled arrival and departure times; the relationship between food and aircraft; and, of course, what flight crews are allowed to eat and drink before, and during flights.
According to the Geneva Convention for the treatment of passengers in-flight, airlines are required to serve meals when the scheduled departure or arrival times fall within specific time periods. As you’ll probably remember, this is the same Geneva Convention which prohibits the torturing of prisoners of war. Please note that there is no such provision regarding the torturing of passengers in-flight except during hostage taking situations when the plane has landed in a foreign hostile airport. If someone is interested in pursuing it, there has not yet been a court case to decide whether being delayed at O’Hare constitutes being held hostage and tortured at a hostile airport. Nonetheless, the airlines are required to serve food in-flight, unless they can schedule around it. Anyone who has traveled from O’Hare to California on an unmentioned airline, with a departure time of 09:15 CST and arrival time of 11:45 PST (4.5 hours) will remember the wonderful in-flight meal of a bag of peanuts and a can of cola. This tactic does have cost savings merits to the airlines, and can be employed effectively for reducing unnecessary food intake during a trip. We’ll discuss Diets later on.
The particular aircraft used during flight has a great deal to do with the available food service. The larger Boeing aircraft, including the 747, 767, and the new 777, have ample space and facilities for food preparations. Many are equipped with convection ovens that can actually heat up (burn) the meals in-flight. Microwave ovens are quite legitimately barred from use on board due to interference with aircraft frequencies. They are also unnecessary since you can get the same warming effect while taxiing past a MLS device (Microwave Landing System). Smaller aircraft, like the ATR-42, do not generally have provisions for hot meal service. Some news-making regional carriers do occasionally serve a deliciously iced up-side-down cake on these aircraft, particularly around Pittsburgh. The sensitivity to turbulence of these small planes has been known to contribute positively (or negatively, depending on your point of view) to eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa.
WARNING: There are no FAA regulations requiring that the food served in-flight or at airports be worthy of being eaten, although ever attempt is made to ensure that the aforementioned border officers will find the food delicious.
This humour piece will now end as we prepare the cabin for landing. Thank you for flying.