These meals vary widely in quality and quantity across different airline companies and classes of travel. They range from a simple beverage in short-haul economy class to a seven-course gourmet meal in long-haul first class. When ticket prices were regulated in the American domestic market, food was the primary means airlines differentiated themselves.
The first airline meals were served by Handley Page Transport, an airline company founded in 1919, to serve the London–Paris route in October of that year.Passengers could choose from a selection of sandwiches and fruit.
Food on board a flight is usually free on full-service European and Asian airlines and on almost all long-distance flights, while they might cost extra on low-cost airlines or flights. Quality may also fluctuate due to shifts in the economics of the airline industry, with private jet passengers receiving the equivalent of five-star food service.
Meals must generally be frozen and heated on the ground before takeoff, rather than prepared fresh. Guillaume de Syon, a history professor at Albright College who wrote about the history of airline meals, said that the higher altitudes alter the taste of the food and the function of the taste buds; according to de Syon the food may taste «dry and flavorless» as a result of the pressurization and passengers, feeling thirsty due to pressurization, many drink alcohol when they ought to drink water. Tests have shown that the perception of saltiness and sweetness drops 30% at high altitudes. The low humidity in airline cabins also drys out the nose which decreases olfactory sensors which are essential for tasting flavor in dishes.