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Food fight: Meals are tricky in the sky

By A. Pawlowski, CNN
Many passengers bring their own meals on board, but food smells can quickly fill the confined space of a plane cabin.
Many passengers bring their own meals on board, but food smells can quickly fill the confined space of a plane cabin.
  • Some fliers bring their own food on board, often annoying fellow passengers
  • Traveler recalls sitting next to couple who brought pungent homemade meal
  • Another is bothered by passengers who bring along fast food, hard-boiled eggs
  • Etiquette expert: Other than coffee, passengers shouldn't be able to smell your food

(CNN) -- Sandi Mays was flying home from a business trip recently when she was seated next to a couple who couldn't wait to eat. She, on the other hand, was about to lose her appetite.

The minute the seatbelt sign was turned off after takeoff, her neighbors rushed to open their carry-on in the overhead bin and pulled out a plastic bag with a surprise.

"Within the grocery bag, there were Tupperware containers full of some kind of food that had a lot of curry and garlic and onions and all those yummy scents. They're fine when you're not enclosed in a tube," recalled Mays, 42, a telecom executive from suburban Denver, Colorado.

"They proceeded to have a feast, and they were pretty happy about it."

Mays was not. In fact, the homemade food's pungent aroma was so strong that it made her gag, and she could still smell it at the end of the four-hour flight from New York to Denver.

"It was terrible," Mays said. "I'm sure the people around in any vicinity in coach were not real pleased."

Flying the hungry skies

Food, or the lack of it on many flights, has become a big issue for fliers these days as airlines continue to eliminate complimentary meals in economy class on most domestic routes.

To cope with a growling stomach -- and to avoid paying $10 for a so-so turkey sandwich or $3 for a stack of potato chips offered on board -- some air travelers are bringing their own options, often to the annoyance of fellow passengers who resent being exposed to a plethora of smells.

The worst offenders are usually anything garlicky or fishy, but even fast food can be off-putting to some.

"If I could impart one wish to other families who are flying, it would be to please not bring on board the McDonald's that you can get past security at the airport," said Jennifer Miner, who flies about once a month and is the co-founder of the travel blog

"Because even more than a small can of tuna, the smell of McDonald's can fill up an entire plane in a minute, and it's not a great smell to a lot of us."

Miner, who lives in Los Angeles, California, also recalled flying after Easter one year and watching a family spend the majority of the flight peeling and eating colorful hard-boiled eggs, which filled the cabin with a powerful aroma of their own.

Tips for eating on the plane

It makes sense to bring snacks on board to stay comfortable, but other than a cup of coffee, other passengers shouldn't be able to smell your food, especially not several rows away, said etiquette expert and author Anna Post, who is also a spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute.

"You don't want to be eating the hot meatball sub. You don't want to be having tuna salad or an egg sandwich or really heavy saucy foods. Or sometimes even sushi can bother people," Post said. "In close confines, everybody else has to experience it, too."

So what should air travelers do? Here are some tips:

• Fruit, crackers, pretzels and cold sandwiches are good choices to bring along on board. "Most anything that's sold in the airport snack stores is probably going to be fine," Post said.

• Avoid bringing hot meals on the plane. "Hot foods are the things where the smells tend to carry the most. If you really want a hot sandwich, have one in the airport terminal before you leave," Post said.

• Different smells can be offensive to different people, but generally fish, hard-boiled eggs and any foods containing garlic, onions, parmesan cheese or vinegar are a no-no in enclosed spaces like the cabin of a plane. The smell of freshly fried foods like chicken or fries can also be too intense.

• Remember that your fellow passengers could have special reasons for being grossed out. "You may not mind the aroma of someone else's garlic-sausage sub with double jalapeño relish, [but] a strict vegetarian or a pregnant woman might," Helena Echlin wrote in her Table Manners column for

• If a passenger next to you is devouring something pungent and it's bothersome, you may just need to tough it out, Post said. There is little you can say or do to get people to put away their food. "Unless you can afford a private plane, these are things you may have to put up with," Post said.

Do you have any in-flight food horror stories? How do you deal with the lack of food on planes? Let us know in the comment section below.