Flying With Dietary Restrictions? Increasingly, That’s Not a Problem

A gluten-free meal offered in economy class on Turkish Airlines: chicken breast over rice, with a caprese salad and chocolate mousse.

When it was time for dinner on my July flight from Lisbon to New York, a flight attendant brought me my special request gluten-free meal. I was diagnosed with celiac disease almost three years ago, and this sort of request for what airlines describe as a special meal — in this case, steamed sea bass with vegetables, gluten-free bread and fruit salad — has been a constant on my frequent air travels ever since.

But on that flight and on a slew of ones before it, I noticed that several other passengers, more than I had ever seen before, had ordered special meals, too. The gentleman across the aisle from me was eating a lactose-free dinner while the woman sitting diagonally from me had a vegan meal. From a flight attendant I learned that there were at least a dozen more passengers onboard who had asked for a special meal.

Have requests for special meals really gone up? It turns out they have: Both international and domestic airlines report an increase in special requests in recent years, and many are trying to accommodate them by broadening their special meals categories.

American Airlines, for example, significantly expanded its category last July when it went from offering seven types of special meals to passengers on long-haul international flights to 14. A low-sodium meal option was added, as was a halal meal prepared without any pork or alcohol, and a bland one prepared with limited seasonings for those with sensitive digestive systems.

Russ Brown, American’s director of in-flight services, said that the airline decided to offer more kinds of special meals because passengers were repeatedly asking for them. “People are a lot more specific with their diets today and try to be healthier overall and kept requesting meals that we didn’t have,” he said.

Since the expansion, Mr. Brown said that the airline has seen a 66 percent increase in special meal orders: American served approximately 106,000 special meals from January to June 2017; for that same period this year, that number was close to 250,000. The most popular meal types during the latter period was vegan and gluten-intolerant. (On American, as with most airlines, special meal requests can be made at the time of booking or up to 24 hours before departure.)

For flights within the United States, both United Airlines and Delta Air Lines have also expanded their special meals categories in response to customer requests.

In 2010, United went from offering five kinds of special meals to nine for passengers on long-haul international flights. And last year, that number increased to 10 when vegetarian meals were added. The airline has seen a 10 percent increase in special meal requests each year for the past 10 years, according to Rob Bradford, the airline’s managing director of global product design and delivery, and that number has gone up “significantly” in the last two years, he said.

Delta now offers 14 varieties of special meals and creates various meals within each category, served in rotation throughout the year. “We wanted to give our frequent customers more choices so that they weren’t eating the same dishes every time they flew with us and ordered that meal,” said Brian Berry, the airline’s director of onboard services strategic planning.

Mr. Berry said that nearly four percent of Delta’s customers ordered a special meal last year, compared to two percent the year before.

International airlines, though, tend to have a more robust selection of special meals and have expanded them even more in the past several years.

Qatar Airways now has 17 types of special meals, while Tap Portugal and Turkish Airlines started offering 24 varieties last year, compared with the dozen or so before that.

On Turkish, fliers can now order not only a vegetarian or vegan meal, they can request a raw food vegan meal, or seafood- or fresh fruit-only meals.

The airline has more than 10 menus for each meal type. In its gluten-free category, entrees include lamb with sautéed spinach and rice, prawns with ratatouille, and herbed chicken with eggplant salad. Warm gluten-free rolls and olive oil accompany every dish.

According to a company spokesman, special meal requests have increased significantly across all categories in the past few years. In 2012, for example, the carrier served about 16,000 gluten-free meals, but that number jumped to about 60,000 in 2017.

And on Tap Portugal, special meal orders have gone up more than 50 percent in the last two years, according to Joel Fragata, the airline’s head of in-flight product.

Historically, fliers have ordered special meals because of religious or medical reasons. So why are they asking for them more today than they did before?

Airline experts say that it now may be a matter of personal taste and also because the current generation of travelers adhere to diets that have proliferated in popularity.

Michael Holtz, the owner of SmartFlyer, a global travel consultancy specializing in airlines and airfare, said that many of his clients follow diet plans such as no-carb, gluten-free, low-carb and vegan and want to stick to these plans when they’re in the air. “I even have one person who prefers to drink only green juices and tried to order a green juice meal for a recent flight,” he said. “Needless to say, that wasn’t an option.”

SmartFlyer sells around 25,000 tickets each year, and in 2017, a few thousand of these came with special meal requests, Mr. Holtz said, compared with a few hundred in previous years.

There’s also a perception that special meals taste better, according to Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and the founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “People think, especially those in economy class, that special meals are fresher, healthier and tastier,” he said.

Ben Schlapping, the founder of the online travel site One Mile at a Time, certainly thinks that this is true. He flies more than a dozen times a month, usually in first or business class, and almost always orders an Asian vegetarian meal, even though he is not a vegetarian. “I get to eat a delicious meal, which is usually Indian food,” he said. “The regular food is so bad, even in first class.”

But one flight attendant, who has worked for a major United States airline for more than three decades and requested anonymity to protect her job, said that special meals aren’t a step up from regular meals and are definitely not healthier.

It’s all airplane food,” she said. “The gluten-free and children’s meals are the most terrible. Gluten-free is usually just a pile of pasta and bread without gluten, and kids get a few chicken tenders, a cookie and a measly portion of vegetables.”

Also beware, she said, that you’re not going to get another meal if you don’t like your special order because airlines only load on one meal per passenger. “If you have a genuine allergy or diet you have follow for a medical reason, it’s best that you pack your own food,” she said. “Otherwise, you might go hungry.”

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