Airline meals are a thing of enigma. They are these magical products that seem to float effortlessly out of tiny airplane galleys; they are hated, wasted, desired, gobbled up, touted and Instagrammed all at the same time. Yet, beneath their thinly veiled foils are traces of untold logistical stories and ills—of bulk procurement contracts, aged and migrant workers, and the cleaning that would follow behind closed doors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, airline meals became a symbol of that dissimulation that was no more. Millions of prefabricated ‘ambient meals’ suddenly got chucked or sold off at basement prices, even as much of the laboured workforce that once created them were left jobless, struggling to put food on their own tables. Catering companies sought to survive the downturn, by switching to non-aviation streams; some more successfully than others, in providing meals for forcefully quarantined dorm occupants, and becoming suppliers of food delivery start-ups that fed locked-down populations. Others (continued to) serve an elite clientele, by selling ready-made Business Class meals in grocery stores, and dishing out delicacies at pop-up A380 restaurants that could set one back $600 for a first-class seat. Airline meals are not just something consumed fleetingly in the air, but a culmination of hidden logistical processes that connect the haves and have-nots in inequitable ways. Thanks to COVID-19, they seem to have spread their wings beyond the aircraft today, to build food empires—made out of vending machines and casseroles—that may change the way we eat post-pandemic.
Dr Weiqiang LIN is a human geographer interested in mobilities. His work seeks to open up the cultural politics of mobilities production (e.g. norms, laws, STS, technologies, affects) through an infrastructural lens. His recent research includes the production of airspaces in Southeast Asia; discursive and technological framings of air logistics in Singapore and China. as well as labour and automation in four of Asia's biggest international airports.