Lonely Planet Writer

What do pilots and cabin crew eat on the plane – and is it better than your meal?

Travel enough and eventually you’ll spot pilots and cabin crew enjoying their breakfast, lunch or dinner on the plane. Or you’ll smell it, with the appetising aromas of whatever they’re being served wafting down the aisle of the aircraft. There’s a lot of science and thought involved in what these meals are, how they’re prepared and how they’re served — and it’s not just “don’t eat the fish!” you might remember from the classic 1980 flick Airplane!

Is the food served to pilots and crew better than that served to passengers?
Do pilots get the same food as passengers? Photo by: Cheryl Chan/GettyRF

But the learning point from that film is true: pilots must choose different meals on board. “Pilots have separate meals prepared in case there are any food-related issues, although rare, that may affect the pilot’s concentration to navigate the aircraft,” Japan Airlines’ crew department explains. “Short flights have one meal. Medium and long-haul flights have two meals. Different meals are prepared for each pilot — i.e., if two pilots are on duty, four meals will be prepared for a medium or long-haul flight.”

It’s not unheard of for unwanted cabin crew or pilot meals to be used as backup options for late-arrival food requests by passengers either. If a vegetarian or someone needing a special meal has been moved onto a flight too late for the special catering to follow them, the crew can often whip together something out of the crew meals or snack options — or even from the pointy end of the plane in extreme cases.

Passengers don't eat the same meals as the crew
Air passengers eat different meals to the aircrew. Photo by: Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch

So if you ordered a special meal and it hasn’t arrived, don’t be afraid to press your case, firmly but politely, to the senior crewmember on board. And be a considerate fellow traveller if you need to ask for something during their brief meal breaks. Flying is, on the whole, a glamorous life, but if the only flight attendant present is perched on a jumpseat trying to scarf down a bowl of lasagne, perhaps your drink refill request might wait a few moments.

On some airlines, the system can be neatly designed to add to passengers’ choices as well. “With long-haul flights, both pilots and cabin crew are provided with a business class meal,” says Ben Inall, Virgin Australia’s leader of crew development and himself an experienced cabin crew member. “This actually helps to ensure we have additional meals on board to ensure the majority of our guests get their first meal choice. We are unable to predict accurately what each guest will order on any flight so this helps with guest satisfaction. Once our guests have eaten the crew will have a selection of remaining main meals.”

Business class meal
Pilots and cabin crew get business class meals on some long-haul flights. Photo by: Shui Ta Tan/GettyRF

With four meal options on offer in long-haul business class, it’s relatively simple for Virgin Australia to ensure that the “different meals” rule is observed.

“On our short-haul operation,” Inall says, “they will have a choice between two meals. Our lovely cabin crew always do their best to fatten up the pilots, so if there is food that isn’t ordered by our guests, they may offer this as an alternative to provide more choice.”

So, rest assured: your pilots and crew certainly won’t have the munchies while they get you where you’re going, and on smart airlines, neither should you.