What do pilots eat different food from their passengers?
Food quality and food taste are divisive subject of debates between the passengers. In most cases there are passengers who either love the airplane food or another group of passengers that just can't stand it. Personally, we heard many more passengers complaining about the food served on flights.
Probably some of the passengers experienced the troubles caused by airplane food such as stomach cramps, headache or even vomiting after they had their meal. Now imagine if this scenario happens to the pilots on the long-haul flight while their passengers are sitting relaxed at their seats and imaging the final holiday destinations. Concentration of the pilots would be significantly reduced. Furthermore, in case that the pilot suffers from a serious food poisoning and if he or she has to throw up and therefore has to leave the cockpit every ten minutes, it becomes a safety and security issue. Now, we can only imagine what would happen if both pilots experienced the same symptoms after having the same meal, for example some bad fish. In this kind of a serious situation we are talking about a pilot incapacitation due to food poisoning.
Luckily, these kinds of events had happened rarely in the past. For instance, in 1982, some bad tapioca pudding incapacitated ten crew members, including the pilot, the co-pilot and the flight engineer on a flight from Boston to Lisbon. The flight crew was able to turn around and land back in Boston without further incident.
A similar incident that luckily just missed the Hollywood scenario occurred when a Boeing 747-800 on its flight from Egypt to Germany was about 3 hours into the flight when the first officer reported feeling unwell and handed control of the aircraft to the captain. About 30 minutes later, the first officer left the cockpit for the toilet and another 10 minutes later the first officer collapsed in front of the toilet. Luckily, there was a pilot travelling as a passenger, so he helped the captain to safely handle the rest of the flight.
At the end, we want to mention that in 1975, on a flight from Tokio to Paris, including a fuel stop in Anchorage and Copenhagen, a serious food poisoning incident occurred. In total 143 out of 364 passengers including crew got seriously ill and had to seek medical detention in Copenhagen. They all had eaten omelets for breakfast that were contaminated with the infectious bacteria. Luckily, the pilots weren't affected as a new cockpit crew had boarded the plane in Anchorage, so due to the time difference the pilots had steaks for dinner instead of poisoned omelets.
We have to add that most of these incidents occurred back in the 80's and 90's when the quality of food inspection wasn't regulated as high as today. Until today, FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), IATA (International Air Transportation Association) and other aviation authorities haven't published a law which states that the pilots should eat different food than their passengers. Nevertheless, most of the airline companies have their internal regulations which states that pilots should eat different food than their passengers. In addition, a lot of the airline companies have additional food regulations for passengers and crew. For instance, there are a lot of internal regulations that state that the pilots should order different meals among themselves and also that the pilot have to eat their meals at different time in order to reduce the possibility of serious incidents caused by the food poisoning. Some of the airline companies took additional step, so they even allow their crew members to bring their own food on the board in order to have a back up plan in case that some of the meals have suspicious look when served.
All in all, today the food standards are pretty high and there are many control steps taken by relevant authorities, catering companies and airline companies that reduce the chance of food poisoning. In addition, all crew members are highly trained so that they can respond on every incident that can occur while flight, including the food poisoning incidents. If you still don't believe that the airplane food is safe to eat, you can always rely on packed and closed snacks or you can even take your food with you on board, but after a thorough check of the customs and airport regulations. Croatian Aviation wishes you a safe flight and bon appétit!