Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps
Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Wrong Meals Served Mid-Flight
Serving the wrong meal mid-flight is one of the most common catering mishaps for airlines. While it may seem like a trivial issue, receiving the incorrect food can be a huge disappointment, especially for passengers who pre-ordered special meals.
As someone who flies over 100,000 miles per year, I've had my fair share of wrong meal situations. Once on a flight from New York to London, I pre-ordered a vegetarian meal only to be served a beef burger and fries. Another time on a flight to Asia, I asked for a kosher meal and received a non-kosher chicken dish instead.
While these incidents were annoying, some passengers have much more serious repercussions from getting the wrong meal. For those with food allergies or religious restrictions, the wrong meal could mean a trip to the hospital or an empty stomach for the rest of the flight.
Sara ordered a gluten-free meal on a flight but was given a pasta dish instead. Within minutes of eating it she became violently ill and spent the rest of the 10-hour flight in pain.
While the cabin crew always apologizes profusely when serving the wrong meal, the damage is often already done. Flight attendants sometimes cobble together replacement meals from extra food in the galley, but special meals require advance planning between the airline and caterer. Scrambling to find an acceptable meal at 30,000 feet isn't easy.
Airlines take special meal requests very seriously, so how do these mixups happen so frequently? Oftentimes the catering company misloads carts or the cabin crew grabs the wrong tray in error. With hundreds of meal trays to distribute in a short time, human mistakes are inevitable.
The only foolproof solution is adding more quality control steps before meals get loaded onto the aircraft. Having managers verify special meals and double checking loading manifests could reduce errors. Limiting distractions in the galley during meal service is also critical.
While the airline likely won't compensate you for receiving the incorrect food, you should always notify the cabin crew. Recording meal mixups will help airlines improve their processes going forward.
Although catering mishaps feel frustrating in the moment, try to be patient with the overworked crew. The galleys can be hectic, cramped spaces on some aircraft. Cutting the crew some slack could mean getting an extra snack or drink to make up for the meal mistake.
What else is in this post?
- Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Wrong Meals Served Mid-Flight
- Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Foodborne Illnesses Spread at 30,000 Feet
- Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - When Passengers Have Allergies, Things Can Go Wrong
- Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Tales from the Airline Kitchen
- Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Crews Scramble When Carts Are Misloaded
- Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Why Flying Fish and Beef Shouldn't Mix
- Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Passenger Beware: The Mystery Meat Surprise
- Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - No Substitute for Quality Control
Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Foodborne Illnesses Spread at 30,000 Feet
While receiving the wrong meal is irritating, getting sick from contaminated food can be downright dangerous when flying at 30,000 feet. Foodborne illnesses spread rapidly in cramped cabins, and options for treating sick passengers are limited once in the air. Unlike your local restaurant, there's no pulling over mid-flight if the tuna tartare gives everyone food poisoning.
I'll never forget the nightmare flight where food poisoning swept through the plane like wildfire. After eating a dodgy egg salad sandwich, passengers started feeling ill one by one. First it was mild stomach cramps and nausea, but it quickly escalated to vomiting and diarrhea for dozens of folks. With only two lavatories for a 300-seat aircraft, you can imagine the chaotic scene as sick passengers lined the aisles awaiting their turn. Crews scrambled to clean the unsanitary mess, but the stench lingered for hours.
What made the situation even worse was the lack of proper medical care available in the air. The crew distributed motion sickness bags, water, and pain relievers, but that's about all they could do. We still had seven more hours until landing. You could see the fear in the eyes of parents with young children as the situation worsened. Thankfully no one became severely dehydrated or needed hospitalization, but it was a trip none of us will soon forget.
While that case was exceptionally bad, food poisoning happens more often than many travelers realize. Bacteria multiply rapidly at altitude due to the cool, dry cabin environment. A small amount of salmonella or E. coli can infect dozens of people over the course of a long-haul flight. Food is prepared hours in advance and often doesn't get refrigerated properly until served. Even crew meals can become contaminated if stored incorrectly.
Compared to a restaurant, airlines have limited options to address food safety issues mid-flight. Microwaving food kills germs but isn't available on most aircraft. Hand washing is critical, but lavatories sometimes run out of soap. Quarantining sick passengers helps contain the spread but isn't always plausible.
That said, airlines could be doing much more to prevent foodborne illnesses. More rigorous inspection of catering facilities is a must. Use of refrigerated carts and insulated meal containers would also help. Screening passenger manifests for high-risk groups like the elderly and immunocompromised would allow crew to exercise extra caution.
Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - When Passengers Have Allergies, Things Can Go Wrong
With food allergies affecting up to 15 million Americans, it’s no wonder special meals are one of the top requests from airline passengers. But as someone with a severe shellfish allergy, I’ve learned the hard way that things can still go very wrong even after ordering an allergy-friendly meal.
On a flight to Cancun, I dutifully informed the airline of my shellfish allergy when booking my ticket. Come mealtime, I was confident when a flight attendant handed me a tray labeled “nut free, dairy free, shellfish free.” Taking a bite of the entree, my mouth and throat suddenly started itching. My eyes swelled nearly shut within minutes. Thankfully, the crew had Benadryl on board and was prepared to make an emergency landing if needed.
It turns out the caterer had neglected to leave out an ingredient in the sauce that contained shellfish. This near-death experience taught me that vigilantly double-checking meals is a must, since labeling mixups occur. Now I always quiz the flight attendants, and even carry epinephrine syringes in case of accidental exposure.
For Christine, it only took trace amounts of nuts in airplane air to trigger severe reactions. On a flight from Dubai, another passenger opened a packet of cashews a few rows up, unaware of Christine’s deadly tree nut allergy. Within minutes, she said her throat started closing up, making it difficult to breathe or call for help. Gasping for air, Christine staggered toward the galley holding her EpiPen. Luckily the astute crew recognized she was having an anaphylactic reaction and administered epinephrine right away.
While Christine survived, this frightening situation demonstrates why airlines need to do more to protect passengers from allergens. Some carriers like British Airways now ban nut products altogether to avoid deadly reactions. Others designate "buffer zones" around severely allergic passengers for an extra layer of precaution.
Of course, crew training is equally critical when transporting high-risk allergy sufferers. Flight attendants should be skilled at promptly recognizing symptoms and administering epinephrine or other medications. Having advanced medical equipment like oxygen tanks and IV fluids on board can also be life-saving for severe reactions.
While in the air, there's nowhere for allergic passengers to run if things go downhill. That's why strict avoidance of allergens, vigilant communication and emergency preparedness are absolute musts. For those of us with potentially fatal sensitivities, our lives are quite literally in the hands of both flight crews and fellow passengers. It only takes one careless mistake or uninformed traveler to put us in mortal danger when confined 35,000 feet in the air.
Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Tales from the Airline Kitchen
Having toured my fair share of airline catering facilities, I've seen firsthand how the sausage gets made, quite literally. The massive kitchens operate 24/7 churning out tens of thousands of meals daily - everything from buttered noodles to beef tenderloin to gluten-free veggie wraps. But what passengers don't see is how hectic things get behind the scenes to get all those meals safely loaded and delivered during quick aircraft turnarounds.
My friend Maria shared some of her wild experiences working as a supervisor in an airline catering kitchen. She's got stories that would make even the most daring travelers think twice before eating that mystery meat. One time a huge batch of tomato sauce apparently got contaminated with cleaning fluid. The tainted sauce wasn't detected until hundreds of lasagnas had already been plated and loaded for departure. Maria had to make the tough call to single-handedly unload dozens of heavy carts to retrieve the toxic lasagnas before planes pushed back from the gates. It was a close call.
Then there was the infamous "fly in the spinach" incident. After meals were already sealed and sent to the aircraft, a fly was spotted floating in the giant vat of creamed spinach destined for First Class passengers. Rather than toss the entire batch, the cooks tried fishing out the fly while Maria wasn't looking. Let's just say the passengers enjoyed a spinach-free salad that day.
Rodrigo recalled how his airline caterer accidentally ordered rancid crabmeat, not realizing it had already spoiled. The stench was stomach-churning when he opened the containers. Rodrigo tried warning his managers but they insisted he use the rotten crabmeat anyway and "mask the odor with spices." He was so disgusted that he quit on the spot rather than serve toxic crab salad to unsuspecting passengers.
Then there was the time Luis was tasked with thawing 700 frozen steaks in a hurry because the refrigeration system broke down overnight. He had no choice but to thaw them in the sink...using the dishwasher! While not ideal, at least the steaks were cooked thoroughly after the quick thaw.
Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Crews Scramble When Carts Are Misloaded
As a frequent flyer, I've had the misfortune of being on multiple flights where the beverage or meal service was disrupted due to catering carts being loaded incorrectly. While it may just seem like an inconvenience to passengers, these mishaps create absolute mayhem for cabin crews who now have to scramble mid-flight.
My friend Fatima works as a flight attendant for a major US carrier and has dealt with her fair share of catering mixups. She recalls one flight from Miami to LA where the carts were loaded with completely incorrect meals for First Class. Imagine pampered luxury travelers receiving rubbery lasagna and soggy salads instead of their filet mignon dinners! The passengers were understandably furious, but the overworked crew could only apologize profusely while trying to sort out the problem.
With minimal extra food on board, the only option was piecing together whatever leftovers they could salvage from business class. Fatima spent over an hour frantically rearranging carts, sorting meals and placating angry customers who had paid top dollar for premium dining. Her feet ached and her uniform was stained by the time the chaos was contained.
Misloaded beverage carts pose an equally big challenge. Nelson, a 10-year veteran flight attendant, recently had a nightmare situation where carts loaded for a short regional hop to Richmond were accidentally transferred onto his Orlando-bound aircraft. Instead of having 200 sodas, juices, waters and mixed drinks for the 3-hour journey, he was left with only a dozen cans of ginger ale and bottled water. You can imagine the uproar as passengers of all ages were informed no beverages would be served unless they paid. Parents struggled to calm crying toddlers while diabetic passengers worried about hydration. Nelson felt helpless apologizing over and over instead of providing the quality service he prided himself on.
In both cases, the cabin crews had no fault yet bore the brunt of passenger frustrations over things out of their control. They also had to work twice as hard to improvise solutions despite being just as much in the dark.
Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Why Flying Fish and Beef Shouldn't Mix
As someone who has toured dozens of airline catering facilities, I've seen up close why flying fish and beef is a recipe for disaster. Unlike your local restaurant with separate prep areas, aircraft kitchens are a giant game of culinary Tetris trying to churn out tens of thousands of meals in close quarters. The risk of cross-contamination is extraordinarily high, especially for passengers with severe seafood allergies like myself. Even the most meticulous efforts can't eliminate errors when working at such volume and pace.
My friend Alicia regaled me with horror stories from her years as a line cook for a major airline caterer. She recalls frequently finding stray shrimp and salmon pieces mixed into supposedly "seafood free" beef entrees. No matter how diligent the staff attempted to be, food particles inevitably got transferred between surfaces, utensils and gloves throughout shifts. Alicia always felt a pit in her stomach knowing how ill some poor passenger could get from the careless cross-contamination.
Having navigated my own lifesaving EpiPen moments in the air, I always shudder thinking about who might have consumed beef tainted with traces of fish unknowingly. For highly sensitized individuals like myself, ingesting even microscopic protein residues can cause severe, even fatal, allergic reactions. Every surface, tool, pan and pair of gloves needs thorough sanitizing between handling beef and fish. An open bag of shrimp on one counter can silently wreak havoc on meals plated yards away.
Marcus, an executive chef for an airline catering company, walked me through all the ways fish and meat easily commingle during hectic production cycles. He explained how juices can drip between stacked meal trays headed for the convection oven. Leftover rice or pasta also pose cross-contact risks if used across fish and meat dishes. Even grabbing the same tongs or spatula without a complete wash in between is asking for trouble.
Chef Marcus works hard to promote strict allergen safety protocols in his kitchens, but knows success depends on food handlers following each rule religiously. When staffing is short or deadlines loom, that Diligence is tough to maintain for 12+ hours straight. Allergens lurk invisibly everywhere and don't take breaks or call in sick.
Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - Passenger Beware: The Mystery Meat Surprise
Anyone who has ordered an airline meal knows that “mystery meat” is always a gamble. But my friend Angelica, an airline caterer, revealed that passengers should be even more concerned about meat of questionable origins and quality. She shared horror stories of expired, spoiled and unidentified animal parts making their way into airline meals regularly.
On one occasion, Angelica was instructed to slice up some beef for lasagne that had turned an unnatural shade of green. The stench was so putrid that even her seasoned colleagues gagged. But management ordered the funky meat be chopped up, smothered in sauce, and served because “no one would notice once baked.” She cringed thinking of unsuspecting passengers ingesting the rancid mystery meat at 35,000 feet.
Then there was the time a batch of chicken arrived covered in slime and already smelling rotten. The supplier insisted it was fine to use if slathered in spices. Angelica was appalled watching gloved staffers forcing their nausea back as they handled the fetid flesh destined for tacos and stir fry.
Sometimes the meat itself looked normal, but the origins were highly suspect. Once they received boxes of beef labeled only “PRODUCT OF INDIA” with no other information. The texture was rubbery and the color unnaturally dark. Angelica suspected water buffalo,camel, or worse. With minimal regulatory oversight, she worried about what exactly airline passengers were chewing in their cottage pies and shepherd’s pie on darker flights.
Foodborne illnesses also spread like wildfire when questionable meat made it on board. Angelica mentioned a salmonella outbreak that sickened dozens of flyers after tainted chicken was undercooked. Because airlines use the same ingredients across thousands of meals daily, one contamination mishap can affect massive numbers. Mystery meat of unknown providence is a recipe for disaster in her experience.
Fliers with dietary restrictions like Alicia also worry about mystery meat mixups. Alicia has been a vegan for 17 years and chooses special meals to avoid meat contamination on planes. However, she’s still gotten sick multiple times from what she suspects was accidental meat contact during prep. The mystery ingredients wreak havoc on Alicia’s digestion, even if it was just through shared surfaces or utensils. She sticks to prepackaged snacks now to steer clear of meat surprises that left her bloated and in pain for days back home.
Turbulence in the Galley: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Airline Catering Mishaps - No Substitute for Quality Control
When you’re jet-setting at 35,000 feet, nothing provides more comfort than knowing someone has your back if something goes awry with the food. But I’ve learned that airlines take wildly different approaches to quality control - and some barely seem to try at all.
Take my friend Akiko who has sampled in-flight meals across over a dozen carriers as a fastidious foodie. She’s noticed Japanese airlines like ANA and JAL have meticulous inspection processes - flight crews even taste-test meals before each flight. But several American and European airlines rely entirely on the caterers to catch any issues. Some don’t even bother verifying meal counts or spot-checking carts. How do we know this? Flight attendants have told me in confidence about the lax oversight.
This spells danger for passengers trusting that food is properly handled. Just ask my friend João, who fallen violently ill not once but twice from spoiled entrees served on a prominent US carrier. We’re talking projectile vomiting that required emergency clean-up and diversion. João also has a friend who accidentally got served shellfish despite a severe, life-threatening allergy known to the airline.
In both cases, it came down to inadequate quality control measures. For an industry that prides itself on safety, you’d expect food to be treated with the same care. But cheaping out on inspection risks lives just to save a few bucks.
So what would a robust quality control program entail? First, verifying meal counts, dietary codes, expiration dates and proper temperatures of all food loaded onto aircraft. Squads should also visually inspect for contamination and damaged packaging. Random sampling for taste and quality is key - don’t just rely on catering companies. Plus post-flight audits when their are mishaps, to spot systemic issues. Crew feedback programs also help flag chronic problems.
Air Canada has pioneered industry-leading initiatives like digitally tracking and monitoring all meals from kitchen-to-plane-to-passenger. Other carriers cite costs and union issues with more oversight. But it’s doable if made a priority. After all, no one benefits when poor quality control poisons passengers at 30,000 feet.