Both international and domestic airlines report an increase in special requests in recent years, and many are trying to accommodate them by broadening their special meals categories.
A typical Gluten free meal would be, steamed fish with vegetables, gluten-free bread and fruit salad
According to The New York Times, American Airlines expanded its category last July when it went from offering seven types of special meals to passengers on long-haul international flights to 14.
A low-sodium meal option was added, as was a halal meal prepared without any pork or alcohol, and a bland one prepared with limited seasonings for those with sensitive digestive systems.
Russ Brown, American’s director of in-flight services, said that the airline decided to offer more kinds of special meals because passengers were repeatedly asking for them.
“People are a lot more specific with their diets today and try to be healthier overall and kept requesting meals that we didn’t have,” he said.
Since the menu was expanded, Brown said, the airline has had a 66% increase in special meal orders - serving approximately 106,000 special meals from January to June 2017; for the same period this year, that number was close to 250,000.
Qatar Airways now has 17 types of special meals, while Tap Portugal and Turkish Airlines started offering 24 varieties last year, compared with the dozen or so before that.
Tap Portugal special meal orders have gone up more than 50% in the last two years.
On Turkish Airlines flyers can now order not only a vegetarian or vegan meal, they can request a raw-food vegan meal, or seafood- or fresh-fruit-only meals.
The airline has more than 10 menus for each meal type. In its gluten-free category, entrees include lamb with sautéed spinach and rice, prawns with ratatouille, and herbed chicken with eggplant salad. Warm gluten-free rolls and olive oil accompany every dish.
Historically, flyers have ordered special meals because of religious or medical reasons. So why are they asking for them more today than they did before?
Airline experts say that it now may be a matter of personal taste and also because the current generation of travelers adhere to diets that have proliferated in popularity.
There’s also a perception that special meals taste better, according to Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and the founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “People think, especially those in economy class, that special meals are fresher, healthier and tastier,” he said.