Forget everything you thought you knew about airplane food
Airlines have gone to great lengths to prove that in-flight dining can be so much more than shrink-wrapped, something-salad sandwiches. From local specialties to upgraded comfort food, menus designed by world-renowned chefs, and wine menus that rival those found at upscale restaurants, the best airlines in the world know they need to push the boundaries to win over customers hearts. And stomachs.
In our annual World’s Best Awards survey, we asked readers to rank their favorite airlines, both domestic as well as international, on the quality of their in-flight food service. “Food on the flights was outstanding,” said one T+L reader about Emirates. “We couldn’t believe [we were] in Economy.” One Virgin America traveler raved about the ability to order food and drinks from the seatback entertainment system.
The top ten domestic and international carriers impressed our readers by making food service something to look forward to in all cabins, and took every detail, from table settings to welcome cocktails, into consideration.
When you book a flight with one of these top airlines, you won’t dread food service—you’ll look forward to it.
No. 10 Domestic: U.S. Airways
“They let us keep the whole can when we get a drink!” joked one voter this year. But sometimes, it’s the little things that matter. On Oct. 16, 2015, U.S. Airways flew its final flight, before merging completely with American Airlines. Chances are, however, travelers with U.S. Airways have already been enjoying AA’s fan-favorites onboard, such as a fruit and cheese plate with Brie, Muenster, and a specialty, seasonal chocolate, or the lentil chili with polenta cake and antipasto skewers.
No. 10 International: Qantas Airways
Australia’s favorite restaurateur, Neil Perry, turns out contemporary dishes for First and Business Class fliers, making it one of the most delicious carriers. To celebrate his 15th anniversary with the airline, there’s an exquisite restaurant-ready menu now in First featuring his most popular dishes from the years (grilled Kingfish fillet, blue cheese and broccoli tart with rocket). A new 16-person-strong team of sommeliers and mixologists is now kicking the beverage program up another notch. Or sixteen.
No. 9 Domestic: American Airlines
“I’ve been a frequent traveler on American for years,” said David Wilson. “For me, the food is all part of that first-class travel experience. “My favorite is the shrimp and grits: I don’t know what they do to it. But it’s something completely unexpected. It’s so comforting when you’re traveling.” This summer, the airline overhauled the Premium transcontinental menus and the domestic First Class menus: including those much-loved shrimp and grits. Rumor has it they’re even better.
No. 9 International: Virgin Atlantic
At least 500 dishes are sampled to create each new menu introduced to a Virgin Atlantic flight, demonstrating the carrier’s commitment to high-quality cuisine. From Economy to First, no detail is too small. And in traditional British fashion, there’s often afternoon tea (with light sandwich wraps, crisps, and a handmade sweet) to look forward to. This year, Virgin Atlantic brought English sparkling wine to premium flyers, as well as personal-sized bottles of wine to coach.
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No. 8 Domestic: United Airlines
Upgrade to Business for First for the best experience on this domestic carrier. In general, readers commend the airline on improving since the merger with Continental. Subscriber Kathryn White claimed it was flying the “United Ritz,” with excellent food and beverage service. In premium cabins, you may have a scrambled egg skillet for breakfast and lobster macaroni and cheese for lunch.
No. 8 International: Air New Zealand
More than 1 million bottles of wine are served on board Air New Zealand flights each year, thanks in part to their team of award-winning wine judges and consultants. Most recently, the carrier brought on Sonoma-based Linda Murphy and Beijing’s Fongyee Walker to help select in-flight and lounge options. Also of note is the Business Class menu, curated by acclaimed chef Peter Gordon. Order the Moorish chicken with saffron-spiced tomato broth and cinnamon roasted-pumpkin hummus and white beans for an exceptional in-air feast.
No. 7 Domestic: Southwest Airlines
Southwest continues to woo passengers with complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic beverages: one of the few domestic carriers still doing so. Celebrate the season with Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest in the fall and Cranberry Ginger Shandy come winter. If you’re flying on a holiday, a stiff drink is on the airline. Cheers!
No. 7 International: Thai Airways
“Everything about the experience was outstanding,” said a pleased voter. Another added, “The food was delicious.” Even in coach, readers reported receiving “royal treatment.” Economy class travelers enjoy authentic Thai dishes such as peanut pad noodles, stir fried rice with pork and chili, and chicken curry with potatoes from the national flag carrier.
No. 6 Domestic: Delta Air Lines
No fewer than five celebrity chefs (James Beard award-winning restaurateur Danny Meyer, Atlanta’s Linton Hopkins, Michael Chiarello of Napa Valley, Japanese and French-trained chef Masatoshi Ishimoto, and Food Network star Michelle Bernstein) have lent their culinary prowess to Delta One’s premium dining menu. Not flying First? You can still enjoy Starbucks coffee, local craft beers, and those crispy signature Biscoff cookies.
No. 6 International: Korean Air
T+L reader Erika Aresta proclaimed Korean Air’s food to be “exquisitely delicious:” and she wasn’t alone. We’re not just talking about the complimentary Nongshim shrimp crackers, either (a local favorite). Jedong Korean Ginseng Chicken Soup is a regional specialty enjoyed by First Class travelers, while bibimbap can be sampled in both Prestige, as well as Economy.
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No. 5 Domestic: Sun Country Airlines
This small, regional carrier beat out some of the major airlines thanks to a dedicated staff and an excellent selection of micro brews onboard. New Minnesota-made products, in keeping with their “Hometown Airline” slogan, have upped the ante: think local kettle corn and a Sun Country Cheeseburger seasoned with a special blend from Lions Tap in Eden Prairie, Minn. Upgrade to First Class for complimentary hot meals and lots of extra snacking.
No. 5 International: All Nippon Airways
Experience Japanese culture before landing thanks to All Nippon Airways’ Tastes of Japan program, which highlights various prefectures of the country. “I knew I wasn’t in the U.S.A. anymore when the attendant asked if I wanted chicken, or conger eel!” said one well-fed voter. Order this Niigata specialty with foie gras and caramelized local pears, Shiga beef sirloin, or eggs benedict with Shonan pork sausages from Kanagawa.
No. 4 Domestic: Alaska Airlines
Nothing warms up hearts 30,000-feet over the Pacific Northwest quite like complimentary wine and beer, or local Seattle liquors mixed with ginger and orange juice. A partnership with iconic chef Tom Douglas has brought seasonal dishes such as Smoky BBQ Chicken sandwiches and Red Miso Ginger Chicken with fried rice and sesame carrots to new heights.
No. 4 International: Cathay Pacific Airways
In 2015, luxury hotel group Mandarin Oriental partnered with this Hong Kong-based airline to create a year full of dazzling menu items fit for First Class. Chefs from hotel properties in London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Boston have been turning out custom dishes—consommé with a tea bag of dried flower petals and gold flake by Hong Kong’s Chef Uwe Opocensky; American-style grilled cheese croutons with slow-roasted tomato soup—that you’ll dream about even at sea-level.
No. 3 Domestic: JetBlue Airways
JetBlue, known for being a determinedly egalitarian airline (with endless blue chips for all at self-service snack bars) caused serious turbulence when it introduced its first premium cabin, Mint. The JFK to LAX and SFO flights featured seasonal tapas menus from uber-hip New York City restaurant, Saxon + Parole. Now, Mint is expanding to the Caribbean, and offering a destination-inspired rum-based welcome drink as well as Caribbean-themed dishes. In May, it became the first domestic carrier to offer a rosé wine at 35,000 feet.
No. 3 International: Turkish Airlines
“Excellent experiences,” reported one T+L voter. “If [Turkish Airlines was] a restaurant, I’d go there to eat.” The food isn’t just delicious—it’s pretty, too. Business Class passengers can sip tea from an embellished, Ottoman-style samovar. Pinkies up!
No. 2 Domestic: Hawaiian Airlines
This summer, Hawaiian Airlines launched their Featured Chef Series, inviting local chefs from the Aloha State to show-off their Pacific Rim-style menus in First Class cabins. First up? Chef Jon Matsubara, who will craft dishes such as Maui red wine-braised short ribs with mashed taro root. Those flying in economy shouldn’t despair. The airline is still the only domestic carrier to offer complimentary meals to travelers in all classes. They’ll also receive a glass of wine selected by Hawaiian master sommelier Chuck Furuya.
No. 2 International: Emirates
This Dubai-based airline has been lauded for its Middle Eastern-style dishes, such as Arabic meze and lamb stew. But new this summer is a champagne pairing menu, available in the First Class cabin, that features six canapés with Dom Pérignon Vintage Rosé 2003. Bites include Persian feta , fig, and truffle honey on walnut baguette, cured duck with saffron-poached pear, and Teriyaki-marinated duck breast with curried apricot and apple chutney.
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No. 1 Domestic: Virgin America
Long a domestic favorite for allowing customers to order food and beverage from the seatback entertainment system, (or to get social by sending a cocktail to the handsome young man in 13A) Virgin America recently announced a partnership with gourmet grocer Dean & DeLuca to offer a curated selection of snacks to First Class fliers.
No. 1 International: Singapore Airlines
This long-haul carrier accepts nothing less than excellence from its dining program: they’re famous for using a pressurized tasting room to ensure their meals taste as good at 30,000 feet as they do on the ground. Now, they’re expanding their Book Your Cook service to the new Premium Economy class, allowing travelers to select their main course from an extensive menu up to 24 hours before their flight. Fliers in First and Business class will enjoy gourmet cuisine served on new, Wedgewood serviceware.