Airplane food has a reputation for being boring, even disgusting. In fact, an entire website is devoted to posting passengers' images of airline food -- the good, the bad and the downright ugly. These real-life photos prove that Beef Stroganoff with roasted vegetables may sound scrumptious on the menu, but when the flight attendant hands you some congealed beef substitute with limp broccoli, your appetite vanishes as quickly as your excitement for the plane ride. After all, one of the ways you can avoid mile-high boredom (aside from reading and watching films) is to eat. If the food is inedible, then your airplane experience is tainted.
Still, not all airlines skimp on the quality of their grub. Some are true epicureans, offering passengers not only a choice chicken or beef, but also gluten-free options, fine champagne and food presentations so beautiful you could cry. And thanks to AirTrax, an organization that monitors airline satisfaction, we can pinpoint the airlines that serve the best food. For its 2011 Passenger's Choice Awards, AirTrax surveyed more than 18.8 million people about their experiences on more than 200 airlines. We used AirTrax's findings (and a few other sources) to come up with these superlatives for the world's most delicious airline food. If you're already spending hundreds -- even thousands -- on an expensive plane ticket, you might as well book a flight on an airline that serves the best food.
[See a photo recap of Airlines with the Most Delicious Food]
When you want the crème de la crème of cuisine, look no further than the United Arab Emirates-based Etihad Airways. Passengers rate its first-class catering as the world's best in AirTrax's survey, and there are several reasons why. The in-flight wines are hand-picked from boutique vineyards across the world -- and the wine, in any cabin, is complimentary. Arabian recipes -- served in generous portions -- are prepared with fresh ingredients and varied enough to appeal to different palates. Plus, with 24 hours notice, Etihad can accommodate dietary restrictions. And did we mention the flight attendants' abundant hospitality? Etihad Airways calls the entire experience "inspiring," and passengers agree.
Winning AirTrax's Passenger's Choice Award for best business-class catering, Austrian Airlines has its meal service down to an art. First, the food comes from DO & CO, a catering company that has upscale restaurants and cafés in cities like London, Munich, New York, Salzburg and Vienna. Then, to make certain the delectable dishes are complimented by the perfect drinks, Austrian Airlines has hired an on-board sommelier to develop wine pairings. And when you need a caffeine kick (and who doesn't on those long international flights?), you get to choose from 11 different types of Austrian Meinl coffee. Plus, there are special meal options for those with dietary restrictions. So, it's not hard to see why Austrian Airlines is popular among business travelers.
Famous New Zealander chefs and wine connoisseurs preside over Air New Zealand's in-flight menus, which is probably why this airline places first in AirTrax's Passenger's Choice Awards for premium economy-class catering. Fresh New Zealand cuisine -- mainly seafood as well as agricultural products like honey, kiwi and sweet potato -- are served on elegant crockery, designed specifically for the airline. Air New Zealand also takes pride in serving native wines. And children need not go hungry either: There are palatable kid-friendly menus, which include items like pan-fried chicken and spaghetti and meatballs, and food options for infants as well. If you get thirsty or peckish between mealtimes, there's a self-service refreshment bar that contains drinks and snacks.
When you book an economy class seat on an international flight, you might worry if your TV screen is going to work, if you're going to have any legroom and if the meal trays are going to make you ill. Well, you can scratch the food off your list of worries when you book on Thai Airways International. It wins first place in AirTrax's Passenger's Choice Award for economy-class catering. The airline's frequent flyers appreciate getting a choice for their entrée. Meals often use typical Thai flavors like chili peppers, curry and kaffir lime leaves, but there are plenty of other options for those with dietary restrictions. And lastly (but not least), alcoholic beverages are complimentary.
In AirTrax's Passenger's Choice Awards, Turkish Airlines was the only one to place in the top three for business, premium economy and economy class catering categories. For this reason, it receives our Best All-Around Award. Not only does Turkish Airlines serve beautifully presented and appetizing food, it also caters to passengers with special meal requirements. If you make your food petition at least 24 hours in advance of your international flight, you can request everything from a halal "Muslim Meal" (prepared without pork products or alcohol), a "Vegetarian Raw Meal" (for those who ascribe to the Raw Foods Movement), and even a celebratory meal (served with a cake for birthdays or honeymoons). And did you know that Turkish Airlines passengers always applaud when the plane touches down? Perhaps they're complimenting the chef as well as a safe landing.
Not a single U.S. airline made it into the top spots of AirTrax's Passenger's Choice Awards for catering. Although the expectations are clearly lower on domestic airlines, two U.S. companies do rise above the rest. According to Travel and Leisure's World's Best Awards 2011, Virgin America is travelers' favorite U.S. airline. Its in-flight menu items include a spinach and strawberry salad and an artisan cheese selection, but snacking on-board is going to cost you. You can also open a bar tab and sip everything from Glenlivet Scotch to Alice White chardonnay. United Airlines also earns a spot on this list for its healthfulness. A study by Charles Stewart Platkin of the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College names United's cuisine as the most nutritious among all American airline food. But if you're traveling domestically, you'll still have to pay about $9 for one of its calorie-conscious snack boxes.
Although AirFrance did not rank in the top-three for any of the classes in AirTrax's awards, we give beaucoup applause all the same. In a much smaller Skyscanner survey conducted in 2011, AirFrance ranked as the 10th best airline for food. And in our opinion, the meals served are consistently magnifique. Plus, the airline offers gratis wine, even in its economy class. For flights exceeding two hours and 35 minutes in length, AirFrance also offers vegetarian or kosher options. And you'll never believe what those up in the first class receive: A menu presided over by famed French chefs Joël Robuchon and Guy Martin. Floral arrangements, a special wine list and elegant table settings round out the gourmet experience.
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