If you are traveling through San Francisco International Airport (SFO) between October 22nd, 2002, and June 25th, 2023, make sure you save some time to visit the latest exhibition at SFO Museum showcasing historic airline meal service sets. Let’s look closely at what the “More than a Meal” exhibition has to offer.

A little bit of history: from cold sandwiches to sophisticated menus

Following World War II, commercial airlines leveraged premium inflight service as a way of differentiating themselves from competitors. The inheritance left by this endeavor to entice customers are precious meal sets, now showcased at San Fransico International Airport’s museum – SFO Museum.

In the dawn of commercial aviation, passengers’ nourishment and hydration needs were a prime focus for airlines. In 1919, Handley Page Transport was the first airline to serve an inflight meal on a World War I modified bomber flying from London to Paris. Already by the 1920s, different European carriers were already offering sophisticated restaurant-like meals, including lobster, ox tongue, roasted chicken, foie gras, and peaches with Melba Sauce. In the US, passengers were handed box lunches with fried chicken and apples while boarding the aircraft; sometimes, the copilot served cold sandwiches and coffee during the flight.

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Handley Page Transport Ad

During the 1930s, Pan American Airways, commonly known as Pan Am, and Imperial Airways were the first airlines to equip their aircraft with proper kitchens and dining rooms for passengers. Here, premium meals were served using the finest china. In 1936, the Douglas DC-3 was one of the first aircraft designed with a galley for food preparation. However, during this time, the propliners had a limited payload capability; therefore, airlines used meal service sets that were designed to be as lightweight as possible.

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Swissair DC-3

After World War II, with air service demand on the rise, aircraft manufacturers started to design new planes that could enable a pleasant inflight dining experience. On their side, airlines began to develop different food and beverage menus. Consequently, the meal service became a focal point of airlines’ competitive strategy. Inflight meals started to be the object of several airlines’ advertisements, whose aim was that of luring passengers by means of sophisticated menus and flavourful cuisine.

Pan Am inflight service Boeing 707

Photo: SFO Museum

To recreate the restaurant-like experience airlines promised their customers, they needed to serve high-quality food in fashionable and elegant tableware.


Photo: SFO Museum

Consequently, airlines started to conceive luxurious meal service sets composed of chinaware, flatware, and glassware. These fine sets were thought for all the different stages of the inflight service, including presentation, utilization, storage, and durability. For branding strategies, tableware often bore the airline’s mark and logo, as well as different decorative patterns. These were mainly related to the airline’s country of origin or destination.

For instance, the Japan Air Lines (JAL) Blue Crane first-class and executive-class meal service set, used between the 1970s and 1980s, was designed and produced by the Japanese company Noritake. The fine china featured either a single crane or a flock of cranes in blue. These motifs were inspired by the airline’s logo, the “tsurumaru”, or crane circle. The set was made of ceramic rectangular plates, bowls, a sake service, coffee cups and saucers, and a tea service. The silver-pated flatware and frosted glassware featured the tsurumaru logo.


Photo: SFO Museum

The “More than a Meal” exhibition at SFO Museum showcases eight different meal service sets used between the 1960s and the 1980s by eight different airlines: United Air Lines, Western Airlines, Continental Airlines, Japan Airlines, and China Airlines, and includes the iconic Royal Ambassador set from TWA (Trans World Airlines) and the President set from Pan American World Airways. The exhibition also showcases these airlines’ historic menus and images of inflight meal services from the time.

TWA Skyliner magazine

Photo: SFO Museum

The “More than a Meal – Airline Meal Service Sets 1960s – 1980s” will be displayed at San Francisco (SFO) International Terminal, pre-security, in the Mayor Edwin M. Lee International Departures Hall. The visit is free of charge.

Would you be interested in visiting such an exhibition? Let us know in the comment section below!

Source: SFO Museum

Source: simpleflying.com

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