Budget Airline Food Will Make You Want to Cause an Emergency Landing

There's a strange, compartmentalized beauty to the food served on major airlines, especially long-haul.

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Sep 11 2014, 3:59pm

Photo via Flickr user David Precious

Imagine if your last meal on earth was Ryanair paella.

A lukewarm Ryanair paella, served up in black, microwave-softened plastic tub, accompanied by an ice-cold €2 Robinson's Fruit Shoot, with Chupa Chups lollies for pudding.

I once, while flying to the gloriously Carry On airport of Knock (an airport that, at the time, was just a bog-hugging hangar with nothing but a shrine, a pub, and a canteen selling curry and chips) was confronted by just such a menu. I was surrounded by 17 frantically-praying nuns, two farmers who looked like they'd been stuffed into their tweed suits using a hay baler and an in-flight attendant who I swear was wearing fake teeth.

I didn't buy the paella.

In fact, I don't know how hungry I'd have to be to eat a microwaved shellfish dish 35,000 feet up in the sky. I sort of hope I never get there. Because, unlike the wonder of the multi-compartmentalised, meals-within-meals affair you get on long-haul flights with big carriers, budget airline food is truly something to behold.

Ryanair's "The Getaway Cafe" on-board menu—named, I imagine, after the instinctive human impulse on being presented with a €6 polyurethane tub of "Lasagne Meal" that, even on the fold-out laminate menu looks like a bowl of phlegm—is a cornucopia of unlikely and largely unappealing dishes.

Who, I wondered, while puttering above the baguette-strewn villages of Northern France on a recent trip, would order a €5 John West tuna salad, on a plane? Who decides that a two-hour internment in a sealed, airless transport capsule is the time for a "Mediterranean-style" fish dish? Who has the unique combination of spare currency and low self-esteem to order a cheeseburger that, even in the pictures, looks like a whey-faced vampire—round, colourless and with two fangs of yellow cheese poking out from under the bun? Who, to be perfectly blunt, has €6 to spend of a pale brown fry up, loaded onto a plane by a man in a high-vis orange jumpsuit and sweat the colour of engine oil?

Even budget airline food is getting better, though. Or, at least, is getting better PR.

"We're all about innovation, pioneering and doing things that are a little bit different," the genuinely charming Alex Goodwin, In-Flight Development Manager at EasyJet tells me. "We tend to look for smaller artisan brands," she continues, without irony. EasyJet have just launched The Little Coffee Bag, "To try and offer a real cup of coffee in the sky, without having a barista on board." Not to mention vegetarian flatbreads, giant macaroons and a box of crisps (because, hey, who doesn't love cardboard).

There is, of course, something of a logistical nightmare involved in serving up fresh, healthy, or just edible food when you're sailing on the winds of high altitude, lightning turnarounds and potential death. Not that Goodwin was going to let that get in the way of her corporate food chat. "We source our cold sandwiches locally," she tells me. "We have bases in Milan, Geneva, Paris, Lyon, Lisbon and the UK, so we target the local flavours for those fresh sandwiches."

That's right. They source the local flavours and authentic regional tastes of that airless hinterland found miles above Badajoz. And good on them. EasyJet ferry over 63 million passengers across Europe a year. It would be impossible to draw up a menu that would appeal to every individual in such a broad range of people. Especially when your only cooking facilities are a scalding tap and industrial microwave.

Even so, I can't help but wonder if a sandwich that looks like an anaemic log decorated with severed tongues is necessarily the broad-based option low cost airlines are looking for.

Apparently, due to "aviation regulations" the customer food is quite different to the crew food. Or so Alex tells me. Those polyester-upholstered attendants are probably munching away on an entirely different set of dishes behind their static-flickering curtains, while we, the luggage-wielding human freight, plough into faecal-looking chicken nuggets and Britvic tomato juice. Not for them the 'Squeeze n Stir' soups, the €4 ham and cheese croissants, and the hard boxes of unidentifiable brown paste known simply as Nutella & Go!

Quite right, too. In an emergency situation I'd want to know that the person holding the door handle has at least had a decent lunch. But if you think I'm going to fall out of the sky with a belly full of airline paella, clutching a tub of pretzels that cost more than my flight and crying tears of Red Bull then you're wrong.

I'd rather walk.