Making Mealtime Meaningful: Discover how we're giving back with the 12T Cares program →

It’s no secret that today’s flying experience, while often much more affordable than in decades past, has lost some of the charm and glamour it once had. Back when the ticket prices were higher and the frequency of flights was lower, that high price and the exclusivity that came with it ensured that a great deal of time and attention was given to making the flying experience feel very luxurious for travelers. And, this included the food- among other things.

chef's load large cakes onto plane
Via: Library of Congress/Harris & Ewing

Some notable examples of this are the large and spacious cabins that larger planes had back then. There was room to walk around and there were even planes with lounges on them where you could sit on a more comfy seat and unfurl your newspaper or magazine (and your legs).

But, one of the biggest ways in which travel has changed, aside from the lower prices and cramped seats we have now, is the food. The menus that some of these airlines had back then would be unbelievable today if we didn’t have proof! That’s how unrecognizable some of them are.

1970s Lounge on a Lockhead Tristar jet
Lower lounge area on a Lockhead Tristar jet. Via: Flickr/SDASM Archives

One of the most relevant records of the fabulous meals are the printed menus produced by the airlines. They’re loaded with different dishes and even appetizers! Airlines also offered meals on what would today be considered relatively short flights with no food service.

These meals could have easily been served in a restaurant and some of them were even served on china with real cutlery. It sounds so different from the tiny little plastic trays of food and bags of chips we get aboard most planes today!

male flight attendant on a 1974 United Airlines flight
Via: Library of Congress/Marion S. Trikosko

On a 1940 coast-to-coast flight aboard the United Airlines “Continental” craft, the menu was extensive. This was when air travel was so expensive that no ordinary person could hope to take any kind of flight. But, for those aboard these flights there was chicken broth and crackers as well as relishes for the starters. For the main course there was veal, lima beans, and Bermuda potatoes. There was also assorted bread, an ambrosia style salad, rum cake, cheese and crackers, as well as tea, coffee, and milk. Noted at the bottom was that the meal was with the airline’s compliments.

1940 in-flight menu
Via: NYPL Digital Collections/Frank Buttolph Collection

From a 1949 United Air Lines menu we learn that they offered shrimp cocktail, steak bercy, peas and carrots, rye rolls, pear salad, nut dressing, and a farina torte for dessert. They also had tea, coffee, milk, and mints available.

1949 United Airlines menu
Via: NYPL Digital Collections/Frank Buttolph Collection

A menu from a 1959 Capital Airlines flight from Milwaukee to Washington shows that there were canapés on board in the form of shrimp cocktail with sauce and also wafers. For the main course there was filet mignon with mushrooms, baked potatoes with parmesan, and broccoli in a Polonaise sauce. There was also a salad with a champagne dressing, rolls, pastry and pie. Coffee, tea, milk, or champagne were offered to drink. For a little treat after all that they also served bon bons.

1959 Capitol Airlines menu
Via: NYPL Digital Collections/Frank Buttolph Collection

A TWA menu from 1975 flights to and from Europe shows a huge range of food and drink available for passengers, though not all the dishes were served on every flight. They broke their menus up into subsections by which direction the flight was headed. “On flights west” is one section, as was “On eastbound flights”. For westbound flights they served a Roman salad with salami and beans. For the eastbound flights they offered a “crisp greens” salad. The desserts also varied by direction, with western flights being served Bavarian fruit gelatins and eastern flights enjoying a sangria chocolate cake.

For the entrées they offered a choice of beef in a béarnaise sauce, almond pineapple chicken, shepherd’s pie, a fruit plate with sandwich, pizza rustica, or a buffet platter with meats and olives. Beers, cocktails, liqueurs, and wines were extra, but sodas were listed as “with the captain’s compliments”. International flights still offer meals these days, but most of them don’t compare to this mouthwatering menu.

1975 TWA in-flight menu
Via: NYPL Digital Collections/Frank Buttolph Collection

In 1978 changes in governmental regulations of ticket prices meant that certain amenities like meals were no longer required to be included in the ticket price. This meant that US airlines could charge less for tickets. The result is that flights were cheaper and they became a more popular way to travel. hose big meals were actually regulated into the price! Passengers were guaranteed a meat, 2 veggies, and a dessert option for each flight. Without those regulations travelers enjoyed lower prices, but along with that came the snack-like “meals” we now get on even coast-to-coast flights.

couple looking at vacation packages in 1957
Via: Library of Congress/Warren K. Leffler

Another factor in the shrinking airline meals is that our in-flight entertainment options are vast today compared to what people had back then. The food service, sometimes complete with slicing a roast or whole chicken at the customer’s seat, was part of the spectacle and luxury of flying. And, by serving elaborate meals airlines not only kept customers occupied and entertained during the flight, they also could set themselves apart from the competition by one-upping their competitors. Now that lower prices dominate most of our flight searches today, it’s no wonder that some of the luxury of flying has gone out the window.