There was a time when a flight attendant’s food cart rumbling down the aisle stirred anticipation on airplanes.

Today, though, free inflight meals are a thing of the past for most of us. What food there is outside of the first class cabin, you’ll likely pay for — or settle for a free soft drink and a teeny, tiny bag of chips or some other salty snack.

Perhaps nowhere has the change been as dramatic for fliers and airline employees as United Airlines, the first carrier to have on-board kitchens that prepared hot meals.

Next month, United, one of the largest employees in New Jersey, will transition its food operations to private commercial kitchens and lay off roughly 2,500 unionized catering employees. Most current workers have been hired by the three private catering contractors, United said.

The decision to outsource the work and close kitchens in Newark, Houston, Cleveland, Denver and Honolulu comes after workers voted to unionize in 2018 in a campaign for higher pay and better fringe benefits.

United has hired three catering companies to do the work once done in the five cities, following other airlines that shuttered kitchen operations to cut costs as the coronavirus pandemic cost companies of billions of dollars in revenue.

A spokeswoman for the workers’ union, United Here, confirmed the employees in Newark would continue to be represented by the union and retain seniority, salary and other benefits. They’ll just be working for a different company: Gate Gourmet.

“There is no concern. They are going to keep all of the workers,” the spokeswoman said.

In fact, Gate Gourmet has hired all 785 of the airline’s food employees at Newark Liberty International Airport, the largest of the five United kitchen facilities.

In Houston, the union is in contract negotiations with Newrest, the new catering contractor, which has declined to recognize the union. The 600 Houston workers will continue to be employees of United until contract talks are complete, the union spokeswoman said.

United’s VP of customer innovation and strategy and catering, Mandeep Grewal, said in a letter to staff the airline’s priority was protecting workers.

“We wanted to proceed in a way that allowed us to protect the vast majority of jobs for our United catering team members, and invest in solutions that significantly improve our customers’ onboard experience,” the letter said.

Gategroup, the Swiss parent company behind Gate Gourmet, pledged in a statement to bring menus and services to United flights that please as many palates as possible.

“We are pleased to partner with such an esteemed carrier (as) United at the key hubs included in the agreement,” Federico German, Gategroup chief commercial officer, said in a statement.

The first airline meal, pre-packed lunch boxes, was served In October 1919 on a flight between London and Paris, according to the Museum of Flight in Seattle. It cost the equivalent of just under $10 at the time.

Around World War II, planes grew in size and food amenities followed. United upped the ante in 1936, installing the first on-board kitchens to prepare in-flight hot meals.

By the 1950s, tablecloths, sliver service and fine wines marked what the Museum of Flight called The Golden Age of Air Travel. British Airways and Air France become renowned for their high-quality, 5 Star cuisine.

Pan Am also was a leader in swanky in-flight food service. A 1939 menu: tropical-fruit cocktail, followed by cream of tomato soup, a half-broiled chicken with wine sauce, wax beans and Delmonico potatoes. For dessert, passengers had Boston cream pie and Blue Mountain coffee.

With no television screens or smart phones for entertainment, Pan Am’s 1958 promotional video suggested food was a major attraction.

“Delicious food adds to the enjoyment,” the announcer said. “It’s prepared in four simultaneously operating galleys, where dishes can be cooked in five-minute ovens. The travail has been taken out of travel.”

Airline deregulation in 1978 largely marked the beginning of the end of satisfying airline dining. Carriers were forced to cut costs to stay competitive – and free food was an easy perk to eliminate.

The September 11 terrorist attacks also influenced in-flight dining. The airlines replaced metal cutlery with plastic.

While the in-flight dinning may never return to air travel’s “glory days,” a new emphasis on healthy options and farm-direct vegetables suggests food service in the sky may take a turn toward sustainable and wholesome.

George E. Jordan writes a weekly column on business and development in New Jersey. He may be reached at george@griotmediaworks.com.

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