Why is airplane food so mediocre? The obvious but wrong answer: because it's cheap. Pringles and French fries and Snickers are cheap, and they are delicious. So what gives?
According to Patrick Jones in this explainer video, it boils down to two scientific facts: 1) low humidity, which affects our ability to taste, and 2) loud noises, which also dulls our sense of taste (backed by a 2014 study).
This video is fascinating not only for exploring the affects of traveling on our taste buds, but also because it gives us a brief history of flying and food, starting on October 11, 1919, when the first meal – a lunchbox – was served on a flight from London to Paris. In 1936, United Airlines launched its first onboard kitchen. And then there were the glory days of in-air dining, when, back in the 50s and 60s, they offered several courses that included entrees such as lobster, caviar, cornish game hens and ham, and took a leisurely two hours to serve. This had to taste better than such fare as United's microwaveable chorizo breakfast sandwiches, pepperoni pizzas, and cold croissant sandwiches (that are no longer complimentary by the bye).
Is there a way to enhance the flavor of food on planes? Perhaps. Just pack your cinnamon and curry, or order a tomato juice – some of the spices and foods mentioned that give us more bang for your bite.