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 found to have 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 also ordered special meals.
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 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, Brown said, the airline has had a 66 percent increase in special meal orders: American served approximately 106,000 special meals from January to June 2017; for the same period this year, that number was close to 250,000.
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.
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.
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, 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.
But one flight attendant, who has worked for a major U.S. 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.”