Business Class Nostalgia Hides The ‘Gastronomic Gatekeeping’ That Priced Ordinary People Out Of Air Travel

Business class ain't what it used to be... but maybe that's for the best.

Business Class Nostalgia Hides The ‘Gastronomic Gatekeeping’ That Priced Ordinary People Out Of Air Travel

Image: X

There’s no denying that business class travel has changed a lot over the years. There’s also no denying that some of the business class seats and amenities offered by airlines like United, Cathay Pacific, and Singapore Airlines are still absolutely fantastic products. And yet, many feel that they don’t quite live up to those on offer half a century ago…

Once upon a time, flying was an event… and a big event at that. Passengers donned their Sunday best, sipped fine wines, and dined on gourmet meals served (literally…) on silver platters at 30,000 feet. Many remember this so-called golden age of airline dining with fond nostalgia, but we think there’s a darker, lesser-known story behind mid-flight charcuterie…

As the guru Gary Leff over at View From The Wing summarises:

“Memes like this one have the story of great on-board meals exactly backwards…”

Gary Leff

To understand this requires something of a history lesson, so bear with me here:

Before the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, the US government exerted massive control over airlines, dictating where they could fly and the prices they could charge. Designed to ensure airline profitability and based on the belief that allowing airlines to compete on ticket price would lead to “ruinous competition” — whereby safety could be compromised due to the financial pressure to cut costs — ticket prices were set very high.

Competition between airlines to capture customers willing and able to pay premium prices was fierce. However, given the government forbade them from competing on ticket cost, how would they lure passengers in? Well, through their in-flight amenities, especially food. This led to the now mindboggling images we see of lobster, legs of ham, and champagne being dolled out to customers by black-tie-wearing waiters.

Naturally, the Civil Aeronautics Board tried to crack down on this too and even considered regulating the thickness of sandwiches at one point to prevent airlines from competing too aggressively via food offerings.

Image: X

However, the aforementioned Deregulation Act significantly reduced government oversight regarding routes and pricing, leading to more heated competition and, for many, more affordable air travel. The shift away from luxury towards cost-effective services made air travel much more accessible to a broader segment of the population and signalled a massive democratisation of air travel… but it also meant the end of silver service.

Ultimately, the so-called “decline” of in-flight dining is more than a matter of changing consumer preferences: it reflects a broader shift in society’s values from exclusivity to inclusivity, from gourmet meals to grab-and-go snacks.

So, as we munch our pretzels and yearn for lobster thermidor in the skies, take a moment to consider the complex interplay of economics, regulation, and social dynamics that shaped the golden age of airline dining…

The food may have been good, but wasn’t it just an era of “gastronomic gatekeeping” that embodied a time before the hoi polloi could enjoy the many benefits of air travel?