Why pilots eat different meals from you – and different meals from one another

Oliver Smith
Are pilots served the same meals as passengers? - This content is subject to copyright.

“The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner.”

Surely airlines don’t take safety cues from Hollywood movies, but if Airplane! taught us anything, it’s that the flight crew should never, under any circumstances, be served the same meal. The in-flight drama that unfolded in this 1980 hit comedy could have been avoided - altogether - if one of the pilots had steered clear of the fish and chosen the steak. Or better yet, the lasagne.

Don't call me Shirley

All of which got Telegraph Travel thinking. Is the threat of food poisoning credible enough for airlines to offer pilots a different menu to one another? And do they, and the cabin crew, eat the same food as passengers?

Reassuringly, it seems major carriers do take gastroenteritis pretty seriously.

“The captain is responsible for ensuring that, wherever possible, the operating pilots eat different in-flight meals,” said a Virgin Atlantic spokesperson. “If both pilots request the same meal, the cabin crew must bring this to the attention of the captain who will approve or deny the request.”

So if there is a particularly eye-catching curry on the menu, and neither pilot can face the alternative, they may still eat the same meal. But there is a safety net. “Pilots at the controls should take their meals at different times,” said Virgin. Which makes sense for two reasons. In the unlikely event that their delicious jalfrezi is contaminated, the flight crew won’t fall ill at the same time. And, of course, it is far safer to operate a passenger jet when at least one pilot is ready for action (and not dunking a poppadom into the mango chutney).

While aviation bodies do not enforce official rules, most airlines do likewise.

An Aeroflot spokesperson confirmed its policy: “Meals for captains differ from those for the rest of the crew, as stipulated by sanitary regulations – this is a precaution against possible accidental food poisoning.”

British Airways added: “The pilots do eat different meals.”

So did the plot of Airplane! dictate this industry-wide practice? Of course not. In fact, a handful of incidents that pre-date the film prompted airlines to adopt the safety measures.

In February 1975, for example, 196 passengers and one flight attendant on a Japan Airlines service from Tokyo to Paris fell ill with severe food poisoning after eating a batch of dodgy omelettes. The ham they contained was laced with the Staphylococci bacteria, and when the plane stopped to refuel in Copenhagen, 143 were sick enough to require hospitalisation. By pure chance, the pilots did not consume the bad pork (they insisted on steak, because their body clocks were not in breakfast mode) and were able to land the plane safely. The story has a dark coda. While nobody died from the outbreak, the cook thought to be responsible committed suicide shortly afterwards.  

A bad breakfast once hospitalised 143 Japan Airlines passengers Credit: ANDREW CROWLEY

More recently, a 2010 Civil Aviation Authority report suggested that between 30 and 50 pilots, operating flights to or from a UK airport, are incapacitated at the controls every year – many because of food poisoning. It highlighted an incident on board a 747 that saw the captain require oxygen, and another that resulted in an emergency landing in Malaga.

As well as eating different meals from one another, airline pilots (and cabin crew) are often offered different meals from passengers. Failing that, they can usually get something from the premium menu – so don’t bother moaning to them about your disappointing economy class stew.

Aeroflot said: “Meals for the crew are based on individual preferences and job requirements – the meals are not the same as those offered to passengers, although the selection of the hot dishes is the same for crew and business-class passengers.”

Virgin added: “As our pilots and crew fly weekly, they have different food to our customers in order to offer some variety. These meals consist of sandwiches, salads, a selection of hot meals (breakfast, lunch or dinner,  with veggie and meat options) plus snacks including fruit, nuts, crisps and chocolate.”

And where do they enjoy their special menu? Some planes contain secret bedrooms, where flight attendants can catch 40 winks, so is there a sneaky Tardis-like canteen up there? Nope. “Our pilots will eat in the flight deck and the cabin crew will eat in the galley areas when they are on breaks,” said Virgin. How disappointing.

Now where's the tray table? Credit: BLOOMBERG

Airlines also permit crew to bring their own food – and many prefer to rely on their own culinary skills.

“After 35 years, and at least six cases of food poisoning, other than in extreme and controlled circumstances, I won't consume a crew meal,” Steve Derebey, a US pilot, told the website Quora last year. “I have no doubt that the kitchens are safe, but, once the meal leaves the kitchen, all bets are off. The chillers on our airplanes rarely chill to a safe temperature of 41F. More often, they range from 50F to 70F.

“International meals are somewhat better, but still sorely lacking in quality. Before each flight, I make sure that I am properly nourished, and have with me enough back-up food so that, if the crew meal is spoiled or inedible, I can survive until I get to the destination.”

Which could well be a lesson to us all. Plane food is rarely delightful, and all that plastic and waste is pretty shameful. Perhaps it’s time we all started relying on the great British packed lunch?

After all, it would bring the history of in-flight food around full circle. That’s because on October 11, 1919, the first airline meals were served on a Handley-Page flight from London to Paris. They were pre-packed lunch boxes at three shillings each, and contained the tried-and-tested triumvirate of sandwich, fruit and chocolate (for the record, the website measuringworth.com suggests that corresponds to around £6.30 today).