The commercial flight industry as a whole takes a lot of flack for infamous tales of poor customer service. While airline PR disasters are a dime-a-dozen these days, there is at least one area in which airlines deserve a bit of credit. In recent years, global flight carriers have made tremendous strides to accommodate the dietary needs of passengers who cannot eat gluten.
It is now an industry standard for airlines to offer travelers with food allergies, health conditions, or faith-based dietary restrictions more than just the standard choice of “Chicken or pasta?” during long-haul flights. In addition to vegan, kosher, diabetic, halal, and lactose-free meals (among others), most international carriers now include a gluten-free menu option that passengers can request ahead of time.
Which Airlines Serve a Gluten-Free Meal in Economy?
We researched some of the most popular airlines in the world, with a focus on flights in and out of North America, to summarize the policies for you here. We’ve sorted alphabetically, but you can jump to the table grid below to view it a different way and view the public spreadsheet.
If you have celiac disease or suffer from gluten intolerance, congrats! You can now join in with the rest of the flight in commiseration over haphazardly heated tins of barely-edible mush! Hooray?
Jokes about the infamously poor quality of airline food aside: we have to admit that some airlines serve better food than others. And furthermore, this move towards inclusive menu options is deserving of praise. In much the same way that many fast-food chains have in recent years taken steps to elucidate which of their menu items are okay for customers with allergies and other dietary restrictions, airlines worldwide are becoming more accommodating of passengers with different dietary needs.
But as anyone with celiac disease knows too well, putting your gastrointestinal health in someone else’s hands can be a huge gamble. While most airlines may offer gluten-free menu options on international flights, whether or not they deliver can be something of a crapshoot. And good intentions do not make for an adequate consolation should you have to go hungry on a long-haul flight because your meal “didn’t make it on the plane,” or least of all when symptoms of unintentional gluten consumption strike at 40,000 feet.
The Guide to Flying Gluten-Free
Living with gluten intolerance, unfortunately, means that you often need to do more than your due diligence anytime you enter into a variable food environment. And while airlines are moving in the right direction when it comes to providing special meal options, there are myriad factors that can influence your experience of flying gluten-free.
We scoured the policies of dozens of international airlines and waded through hundreds of customer reviews to comprise the following tips for flying gluten-free and living to tell about it:
Do your research. Knowing what to expect can save you a lot of stress. Read up on the airline’s special policies ahead of time. Depending on the route, operator, and departing city, gluten-free meal availability may vary.
Reserve your meal as soon as you have booked. The more advanced notice you give, the better. If you book directly through the airline, you will likely be able to select your gluten-free menu option before checkout. If you book through a third-party site, you may need to get in contact with the airline directly once you have your confirmation number.
Gluten-free meal options may not be safe from cross-contamination. Most airlines’ policies do not unequivocally state that all ingredients used in the gluten-free meal option are processed in facilities that do not handle wheat. In fact, several include a disclaimer that they cannot guarantee gluten-free meals haven’t been cross-contaminated. But the absence of such a disclaimer doesn’t necessarily mean the food is 100% safe for celiacs.
Friendly reminders go a long way. Some airlines, like American, specifically request that you “let the gate agent and flight attendant know you ordered a special meal” once you’ve arrived at the airport. These pre-departure nudges can help ensure no last-minute mistakes are made and no special meal requests are left behind.
Additional dietary restrictions likely can’t be accommodated. Airplanes aren’t kitchens – airlines are bound to the pre-packaged options provided by their caterer and can typically only accommodate one restriction per meal. This means it may be impossible to get a meal that is, for instance, both vegan and gluten-free.
Bring your own food. Things go wrong. Delays, cancellations, and last-minute crew changes may lead to your meal getting left behind.
Don’t rule out the possibility that you’ll be given nothing but a single banana to eat as your gluten-free meal. Nobody wants to go hungry on a transcontinental flight, so pack your own food just in case. Not only is it safer, but it’s also probably much tastier and more nutritious.
Need something warm in your belly? Carry on a gluten-free instant meal. If you’d like to be able to eat something warm during your flight but don’t trust the airline’s gluten-free option, consider taking some instant meals with you. While flight attendants can’t heat any food for you, they can provide hot water and utensils. Rice-pasta instant mac & cheese or gluten-free instant oatmeal packets will feel more like a real meal than cold snack foods and raw produce.
Awareness about gluten intolerance is undoubtedly growing and gluten-free options are expanding everywhere from your local grocery store to international hotels. While gluten-free airline food may not be a culinary wonder, and while a quick Google search will turn up plenty of reviews written by scorned gluten-free passengers, the tides are changing. With a bit of research, planning, and a healthy dose of skepticism, you too can experience a pleasantly underwhelming in-flight dining experience.
Table of Airlines and Gluten-Free Food Policies
|Airline||Latest you can reserve (hrs)||Costs extra?||Low gluten only?|
|Air New Zealand||24||True|
|Air Tahiti Nui||48|
|All Nippon Airways||48|
|EL AL Isreal Airlines||48|
|Royal Air Maroc||48|
|South African Airways||48|
|Swiss International Airlines||24|
Need a sortable sheet? Check out the public Google Sheet with this data.