On Fear, Flying and Inflight Food

September 15, 2015

Flying West

For a long time I had a serious fear of flying. The first trigger would be the moment I unzipped my suitcase to start packing, and from then I would feel nauseous, dizzy and like I wanted to run around screaming, all at the same time. I would pack the evening before to alleviate anxiety in the morning but of course I wouldn’t sleep properly, so the tiredness would end up screwing me over. As the flight time approached I would be shaking, and when I was on the plane there would be tears, panic attacks and much clutching and sweating. I apologise to anyone who travelled with me during that period.

Then I discovered tranquillisers. I ended up popping these magic pills before the airport, at the airport, on the plane, on the flight. Recreationally. Only kidding! I just got enough to travel each time, but the problem was, they never knocked me out as much as I wanted them to, so I decided to combine them with gin. Hint: don’t do that. Alcohol and tranquillisers are a really dangerous combination. As my GP sensitively put it when I told him about this, “you want to be careful love, or you’ll do a Whitney Houston.” So after I contemplated the dangers of slipping away in my sleep and mentally raked over a couple of incidents I’d rather forget it was time to do something about The Fear. It was a lot more likely I’d do myself serious harm trying to self-medicate, basically. What a tool.

Anyway I did get over my fear, and people often ask me how I did it, so I will tell you. The first thing I did was learn as much as I possibly could about flying. When you’re scared of it, one of the main issues you have is all those noises, bumps and sensations in flight, not to mention the question of HOW DOES IT EVEN STAY IN THE AIR!?? There are books that can help you with this. I recommend Cockpit Confidential by Patrick Smith. I wouldn’t say I’m the world’s greatest fan of turbulence still, but I do know it doesn’t mean the plane is going to drop out of the sky. I also know what all those sounds mean, and they no longer freak me out. The second thing I did (which I’m afraid isn’t an accessible option for most people) is that I started flying all the time. A couple of weeks ago for example, I took five flights in one week. After a while, I just couldn’t be bothered being scared any more, because anxiety and fear is really exhausting. I still have a couple of gin and tonics or bloody Marys on a flight, and there was one major freakout this year during some particularly bad turbulence (I had to call the attendant who talked me down) but hey, I’m doing good. I’m also now an expert at recognising the signs in others and so I once helped a woman through a panic attack. A proud moment.

Anyway the reason I am telling you this, apart from the fact it might be interesting or helpful, is that I now find myself in a place where I am fascinated by flying. It’s that weird borderline thing that happens when you’re scared of something, or repulsed by it. A bit like the so called fine line between love and hate. I became very interested in all aspects of aviation and started reading more books, watching the flight paths outside my window and becoming a little bit geeky. I cherish my model A380. I know. That’s actually not a joke.

When I went to Malaysia recently, I was really excited about the prospect of going behind the scenes at an airline catering facility. Is it the little compartment trays that we love so much? Well partly, but I think it’s also the element of surprise and the fact that people like to have lots of little bits and bobs to nibble at. There’s also not much else to do in flight, so the food is more exciting than it should be. The worst food I’ve ever had is short haul with Middle Eastern Airlines. I present to you the sandwich we were served. Manky lettuce, soggy roll, squeaky reformed meat.

The best I’ve ever had has been with Etihad and Malaysia Airlines although both in business class I’m afraid. That isn’t a guarantee of quality, by the way. On a recent BA flight I had both the economy and business class meals (a long story involving a large Mexican man and too much brandy) and the economy option of vegetarian curry was rich and fragrant with curry leaves (I was amazed too), much better than the lump of dry,  grey steak they served in business.

The Etihad business class meal: champagne before take-off, proper glasses and plates, decent enough mezze and a huge lamb shank. The pasta wasn’t bad either.  If only it were like this every time. Sigh. 

On Malaysia Airlines, they have garlic bread. Garlic bread! It’s all soft and squishy and pungent, not dry and dusty as you might expect. There’s also a famous satay trolley in business class, which is really, genuinely excellent. I saw them being made in the catering facility on a grill, which is lit 24 hours a day, burning 120 kilos of mangrove charcoal in that time. It’s manned by rows of people flipping the sticks and fanning the flames. In one day, they will produce 18K sticks of satay. I don’t know about you but I was hugely impressed by this grill. I’d expected sad little oven-cooked bullets of meat, but this was bouncy and well flavoured (having been marinated overnight in turmeric, shallots, onion, ginger, lemongrass, galangal etc.). On board the sticks are re-heated and a rejuvenating marinade is brushed on with lemongrass, before it’s served with a peanut sauce. Malaysians are very proud of their satay.

Malaysia Airlines Satay

The catering facility was fascinating – so much repetition. Hundreds of dinky croissants waiting to be baked, or containers ready for filling. Each facility is used by many different airlines, and there are stations with screens telling the workers what to put in each box. There are vast freezers, ovens like wardrobes and shelves which remind you uncomfortably of trying to move boxes of flat pack without starting an argument. The quality ranges from sad looking Richmond style sausages at one end of the scale to fridges full of caviar, smoked salmon, confit and truffles at the other.

The executive chef told me about the difficulties of designing new dishes. We all know the spiel about tastebuds not performing at their best at altitude. At 30K feet we appreciate salt and umami, so that’s what they try to give us. The menus change often and work in cycles, so the team will look at what is new, what the food trends are, what the demographics of the passengers will be and what they can afford to serve. It’s a delicate balance, particularly once you add in the difficulties of scaling up and reheating at 30K feet.

So which are the most challenging items? Green vegetables are very tricky, and also noodle dishes which turn to gooey clods. There are some dishes which have been trialled again and again but just don’t work. German cuisine has apparently been a problem. I can imagine. Why persist? In business or first class there are more options as the crew are trained by the chef to be a lot more hands on with the food (as with the satay for example). With economy class, it’s just a case of re-heating. All staff get a one day training session, but apparently some need to be taught to recognise a carrot.

All fascinating stuff. I’d go again actually, but like I say, I’ve become the First Officer of Nerds when it comes to these matters. So now I want to know some things from you. Definitely the best and worst airlines meals, please! Definitely not any in flight horror stories involving near misses, smoke, fire or anything like aborted landings. Ta.


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    Reply Kate September 15, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    I’ve been through the same cycle with flying. And I do find that the better the food the less freaked out I am…on an upgrade to business on Air France longhaul, I ditched the tranqs for the very very good wine list. I also really liked the food on Thai air, longhaul economy. But I fly a lot transatlantic on BA, economy, and admit to a sneaky love for their mega cheesey pasta – terrible but pushes me to some semblance of a doze. And I still remember aged 4, flying to Australia with expat mum, when they refueled in Singapore and took on fruits this suburban London child had never had – joy.

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      Reply Helen September 15, 2015 at 1:48 pm

      The BA pasta isn’t bad you know and I swear that curry, although it may have been a one off was really good! An upgrade makes a huge difference for a nervous flyer though, I agree.

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        Reply Chris September 15, 2015 at 2:04 pm

        It’s not a one-off I don’t think – I’ve had that curry and it’s really good, and not just in comparison to the shite they otherwise serve

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          Reply Helen September 15, 2015 at 2:19 pm

          I’m not sure what happened there. Who cares! Long may the curry be served.

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    Reply Kate September 15, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    also – I once sat next to a man from Kolkata on a flight to Montreal – his first time out of India – and he went through a very touching debate with the nonplussed flight attendants about whether or not he had to eat everything on his tray.

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      Reply Helen September 15, 2015 at 1:48 pm


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    Reply Lizzie September 15, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    I think I might need to have a read of this book. On a flight to Seattle I turned to the woman next to me and said “look love, you haven’t put your phone in flight mode and I’m really worried that will interfere with the plane and we might ALL DIE”.

    Well done for conquering your fear!

    On long haul I always order Asian vegetarian; not only do you get served first as it’s a ‘special request’ so you can eat and conk out, but it’s also super delicious. Garuda Airlines which is the budget Indonesian one had some of the most delicious curries. You have to be able to stomach curry for breakfast though (AND WHY NOT)

    I flew Virgin Upper Class with work (obvs) and it actually wasn’t all that. Nice to get cutlery, and cheese, but the food was pretty pedestrian. That was the only time i’ve flown posh. Sob wibble.

    As a rule I order the option that is from the country – a flight back from India choosing curry over chicken pasta was a wise decision.

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      Reply Helen September 15, 2015 at 1:50 pm

      Apparently the reason people need to turn their phones onto flight mode is that it might interfere with what the captain is able to hear in his headset, so not necessarily a life or death situation. I HOPE. Please no one tell me otherwise! The book is really good and interesting so I highly recommend it. I agree on the ordering from that country option. Always wise. Oh and yes, I think Virgin are just ALWAYS shit.

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        Reply Just a Guy September 19, 2015 at 9:12 am

        Turns out it’s neither; if phones could make planes drop out the sky, they’d be banned along with your toothpaste and bottle of water. It’s mostly because the cell towers on the ground would get confused at a passing plane load of 800 phones suddenly turning up, connecting, and disappearing. So the mobile providers got them banned from planes as a nuisance.

        File it under the same as ‘if you talk on your mobile at a petrol station someone will yell at you, but if it’s in your pocket doing loads of stuff in the background that causes much more radio activity than a call, no-one will care’.

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          Reply Helen September 30, 2015 at 2:57 pm

          Ah! Fab, thanks for the info. That’s really interesting. Worth writing this to receive that little gem alone!

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    Reply Alicia (foodycat) September 15, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    Air New Zealand provided one of the best meat pies I have ever, ever had.

    The worst was actually airport, not inflight food – a prawn biryani at Changi which made me vomit all the way to Frankfurt.

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      Reply Helen September 15, 2015 at 1:51 pm

      OMG. Vomming on a plane is the worst although not as bad as…actually never mind.

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        Reply Alicia (foodycat) September 15, 2015 at 2:19 pm

        There was no drinking water on the plane for some reason. They could only give me pineapple juice. Tastes the same in both directions.

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          Reply Helen September 15, 2015 at 2:22 pm

          ARGH! I remember I was on a flight recently where they ran out of drinking water – they had plenty in bottles though, at £3 a pop.

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    Reply msmarmitelover September 15, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Really interesting piece. I remember you doing all that clutching on the way to Georgia. So much so that you hooked yourself a new beau in the form of Donald who was the clutchee!
    I always order Asian vegetarian. If food isn’t provided I think sushi works really well on flights.
    I kind of love plane food actually.
    I had brilliant food on the British Airways flight to New York from City airport in business class. Never turn right when you enter a plane eh?

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      Reply Helen September 15, 2015 at 2:20 pm

      OMFG that was bad yes although it was also VERY CONVENIENT. Ha ha ha.

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    Reply Elizabeth in Portland September 15, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    Back in the days when they didn’t charge for food, you could reserve a special meal on United flights for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I was a vegetarian then, and due to scheduling ended up on three separate flights in one day going from Oregon to North Carolina, so I got to order all three. So exciting! Breakfast was great, a nice nut-filled grain porridge, with some fruit on the side. Lunch was a salad with … a nice nut-filled grain porridge. Oh, look! A nice nut-filled grain porridge for dinner, with some steamed vegetables. I wrote a letter to the airline that evening, with a long list of alternative vegetarian options.

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      Reply Helen September 15, 2015 at 2:21 pm

      Didn’t charge! The glory days. That’s hilarious about the porridge. So lame. Use your imagination guys! Also breakfast is usually always the worst meal of all. I’ve never had a good one.

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    Reply Eliza Bennet September 15, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Best food on an airline for me is Singapore Airlines, actually it is the best airline to me. Next would be Turkish Airlines (both Star Aliance members but Singapore is better – and I’m a Turk) the food is very good at Turkish Airline flights (even internal ones). I especially recommend the sour cherry cake.

    I don’t know why but I have seen an airline that has good bread. Usually I love bread but I almost always skip it when on a plance.

    Best USA airline as far as I’m concerned is United. Excellent service and the food is decent and varied too (although of course it comes with charge)

    Everything above is economy class observations. I have never flown with business or first although I’d love to.

    As a person who loves flying and feels great when on air, the airline I want to fly with is Emirates First class where you can actually take a shower on a plane!!!!!!

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      Reply Helen September 15, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      The Etihad suites are amazing too. I think they call it The Residence. That has a shower and several rooms in a suite. I was on an A380 once where they had them but didn’t get to have a look. I’d love to go and sit in one!

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    Reply Rachel Lucas September 15, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    I used to be petrified of flying too…I actually believed that it was my sheer willpower that kept the plane in the sky & that if I stopped clutching the armrest so tightly that it almost made my knuckle ones burst through my skin for even ONE minute we would plummet from the sky. Talk about an ego!! I got better after living in the U.S. for a while in the late 80s, using a tape made by Captain Cummings who was a senior PanAm pilot…oh blessed man!! Lucky as my sister emigrated to Oz in 2000 & I can’t live without seeing her once a year! Anyway, plane food: bread is always appalling I find…I agree with Kerstin etc and always order Asian veggie on long haul. JAL (Japan) was my favourite inflight food ever…noodles, pickles, delicious!

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      Reply Helen September 15, 2015 at 7:42 pm

      Bread is ALWAYS awful, right? I don’t know why they bother. It’s always so hard. That said, the garlic bread on Malaysia airlines was reeeally soft. An unusual occurrence, obviously. I know what you mean about the clutching. If I let go the plane will fall! That’s the thing about these fears though isn’t it – not rational!

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        Reply Wayne October 25, 2015 at 5:10 am

        You will probably never have a reason to fly with them, but Alaska Airlines has great food and their bread is wonderful, no matter what meal it’s in. I fly them 6 or so times a year from LA to Seattle (where they have a huge presence), and they do a great job.

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    Reply Ian Goodrick September 15, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    Worst by far was late 80’s Aeroflot in central Asia. Every time there was food it was cold chicken and cucumber, Served by a very scary hostess and served from the same type of aluminium tray that school dinners used to be served from. Also to add to the frisson there were always visibly armed guards on each flight and the pilots carried guns.

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      Reply Helen September 16, 2015 at 9:05 am

      WOW. Best story yet! Cold chicken and cucumber. Yummy.

      Also…The. Pilots. Carried. Guns.

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    Reply Victoria Byrne September 16, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    I had delicious tilapia with fennel on a flight from London to Kampala last November (in economy: it may have been the gluten free option) My first trip to Africa, and I really appreciated it when I discovered that tilapia was on the menus in Uganda, fished from Lake Victoria, so it was a thoughtful thing for BA to serve on the plane.
    I would always prefer food that travels well to something that ticks nutrition lists – if greens don’t work leave them out! give me a cheese and ham sandwich for breakfast any day.
    The gluten free bread on BA was amazing too.

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      Reply Helen September 16, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      Really! That’s odd isn’t it, as gluten free bread is so often terrible. Well blow me down.

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    Reply Ms Marple September 16, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    Flew with 2 children to Thailand who refused the delicious Air Singapore meals so I ate all three. ( why???? Greed, of course, and I was hungry but also think I eat when scared of dying)
    Can’t actually remember what it was but when I vomm’d it into the loo in one solid mass, it looked the same as when I ate it.
    Am about to jet off on holiday on what I thought was a cheap flight but not so when I’d booked my seats, bought the right to piss, paid the additional charge to breathe.., in a retrospective attempt to save money refused to pay for food. Ha! That’ll show ’em. Is a 5 hour flight tho and I do get hungry on a plane…..So can you take food on a plane and what would anyone recommend????

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      Reply Helen September 16, 2015 at 4:28 pm

      You can take food on a plane of course but there aren’t so many options are the airport. I’ve had success getting various sandwiches through security however, most recently a sabich in Israel. Still ate it before I got on the plane though. Doh!

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    Reply Ncf21 September 17, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    Was upgraded to business once on Finnair and had a very enjoyable spread of reindeer pâté with berries, then salmon, then more berries. Plus the steward who kept foisting more wine on me (in delightful Ittala glasses I would happily have teefed) which would have been fine had I not been in aftermath of a very indulgent festival w/e and eager to avoid drinking.
    Also love the pot noodles for snacking on long-haul flights to/from Asia on most airlines.

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      Reply Helen September 17, 2015 at 3:44 pm

      Yes! Those noodle pots are brilliant. Also, reindeer pate! Amazing.

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    Reply Anne Richardson September 17, 2015 at 7:58 pm

    Great post Helen. I have been tranq-ing up on flights for the past 10 years or so – this book might actually help me, as I’ve really not had the stomach to do anything about my anxiety thus far, apart from begging my GP for valium every so often. Thanks for recommending, this could change my perspective I hope!
    As for plane food, I seem to fly only short haul budget airlines at the mo, and because I refuse to pay through the nose for a reheated rubbery slab of pizza, plastic sandwich or (haha) cup ‘o soup (classy), I buy my lunch in the airport from Pret or Eat or Itsu and find that the sandwiches / sushi still taste pretty darned fine up in the air. In fact, that is the only thing that takes my mind off the fact that the plane is going to explode any minute. My fears are not completely unfounded, though – I’ve been in 3 planes that had some kind of mechanical failure, which contributed to my sheer naked terror over the years. But that’s another story!

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      Reply Helen September 19, 2015 at 8:57 am

      WOAH WOAH WOAH. Horrible! Poor you. I agree on the airline food though, it’s just not worth suffering the options on those budget airlines.

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    Reply Alan Hay September 18, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    When you’re walking across the tarmac, looking up at the vast object in front of you, the size of a row of houses, it does seem weird that they can’t fit a normally proportioned bread roll on board, doesn’t it?

    The oddest I ever heard of was a friend who, travelling on Aeroflot, did what I think prisoners often do, and said he was vegetarian for fear of having to eat goat tripe or ‘meat’ ‘balls’. But Aeroflot had no clue what vegetarianism might mean. He tried to explain, and was brought the most baffling meal possibly of all time: a plum in a glass of water. Not AND a glass of water, IN it.

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      Reply Helen September 19, 2015 at 8:56 am

      HA HA. That is the best airline food story I have ever heard. Brilliant.

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    Reply Niamh September 19, 2015 at 9:45 pm

    That satay! SWOON! I really must try and recreate some at home soon. With charcoal 🙂 I used to be terrified of flying too. I am still not brilliant but I used to be a ball of panic before.

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      Reply Helen September 30, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      Yes, me too! We have flown together obviously and I think we were both pretty brilliant 🙂 I am longing to cook satay too.

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    Reply john September 21, 2015 at 10:56 am

    Back in 1979 aged 11 I went on our comprehensive school trip to Moscow.
    On the Aeroflot flight out , for a joke ordered a round of vodka for all the boys on our row of seats. Two minutes later the stewardess rocked up with a a big tray of Stoli!
    We had a few more rounds before the teachers sussed us out. Great memories!

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      Reply Helen September 30, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      Ha ha! That’s awesome. Wow, golden days, huh.

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    Reply Erin Goodwin September 29, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Wow, the first photo is just breathtaking.
    I’ve always wondered what and who stays behind the airplane food… Nevermind, I also have a fear of heights and flying in particular. It all started when I was 7 years old and me and my parents had to travel to Russia. There was bad turbulence, but nothing happened. Alas, I got scared for life.

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      Reply Helen September 30, 2015 at 2:54 pm

      Argh, that’s such a shame! It’s definitely a horrible sensation. I was on a flight yesterday when we flew past a thunderstorm. It was magical to see lightning flashing away in the distance, but also incredibly unnerving. I downed my gin in one.

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    Reply Alex Watts October 16, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    Great read Helen. Really like your photos too. Nice work.

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      Reply Helen October 16, 2015 at 7:53 pm

      Cheers Alex!

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    Reply Carrie December 4, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Genuinely glad to have stumbled across this post. Just got off a flight this week after experiencing the fear you described and have been thinking of doing one of those Virgin Airways”Flying without Fear” courses. Good to know that I might be able to get over it too- Might try that book you suggested first! x

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      Reply Helen December 4, 2015 at 6:15 pm

      Brilliant! Yes, do try it. Try everything! It can’t hurt…

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    Reply Kludge February 19, 2016 at 12:03 am

    Agreed re: Malaysian and Etihad having the best food. As a rule I always request a Hindu meal in advance from airlines, if there’s one available, as it’s often rather nice compared to the awful a-la-carte alternatives. I remember Etihad giving me an Indian flag of palak paneer, cumin rice and chana masala, with a paratha in tin foil! I nearly passed out with joy.

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