Think about a time you had a cold and couldn’t taste chicken soup because your nose was blocked up. Smell makes up the bulk of a sense of taste and at cruising altitude, our noses are basically as busted as a head cold: We lose up to 30 percent of our perception flavor, says Milos.
Because of air pressure, water heats differently on a plane — it can’t reach 212°, remember? — which also affects flavor. “Certain blends of coffee need higher temps to bring out the full flavor of the roast,” says Vaile. What you get is “bland, somewhat watery tasting coffee in the air.”
There’s hope, maybe: Coffee is getting better
Airlines aren’t oblivious to their coffee shortcomings, and some are working on improving their caffeine game.
“No matter how good the beans, you simply cannot have high-quality coffee without quality water,” says Giorgio Milos, a master barista for illy North America, United Airlines’ coffee partner. When United partnered with illy, it changed everything from the beans to the water to the service. One move was to change how the water was treated, swapping out chemical disinfectants like chlorine dioxide for an ozone disinfection system.
“United also stopped using carbon water filters, as tests revealed they can cause more harm than good by harboring microbes and reducing chlorine levels, degrading water quality,” says Milos.
Skift’s Sumers vouches for espresso-based drinks, especially as planes install espresso machines. “I enjoy the coffee on SAS, Austrian, and a few others,” he says, “but these machines are very expensive so you don’t see them much. When they’re on a plane, it is usually in business class.”
If you’re not in biz class, you’re getting a bland-tasting coffee, at best; at worst, you risk channeling your inner Gwyneth Paltrow-in-Contagion. Your best bet for an illness-free cup is grabbing it before or after your flight.