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While flying a low cost airline recently, it took at least three reminders to get a glass of water. Short haul or long, it is worth knowing whether serving bottled water is a free or a paid service on a low-cost flight where meal is charged separately. 

Food is an important if not an essential part of travel especially if the journey takes more than two to three hours. There could be many reasons for it, ranging from killing boredom to ensuring that the meal time is not disrupted just because it coincides with one’s time of travel. Travellers, therefore, consider both quality and quantity of food served during their journey an important determinant of their choice of airline or train. There are many who travel by premium trains, like Rajdhani and Shatabdi, but prefer to carry their own food simply because they are not satisfied with the quality of food served on these trains or they have some doubts about its hygiene.

From the perspective of airlines, paid food service is one of the ways of generating an extra source of revenue while trying to keep fares affordable. News platforms on Wednesday said Air India will carry food all the way from India for its return journey on some of its routes. These don’t include the non-stop flights to the US. It might not be totally incorrect to say that this is akin to certain communities preferring to carry packaged ready-to-eat Indian meals to overcome food issues while travelling abroad; though the reason in the case of Air India is cutting costs. Unnamed airline officials quoted in media reports said the loss making airline spends around Rs 600-800 crore on catering services and sourcing food from India is both cost effective and more to the taste of Indian palates.

A few months back, Air India had halved the quantity of cheese boards served in the premium class on international flights which helped it save Rs 2.5 crore. It had earlier stopped non-vegetarian meals for economy class passengers on domestic routes. Despite its losses, the national carrier does not want to charge patrons for the food if they travel economy class. Perhaps, this is the reason why some of its customers prefer to stick to the airline.

There aren’t any rules that make it obligatory for airlines to serve food if the travel time is beyond a specific period. All that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation says is that for flights delayed less than 24 hours, airlines have to serve food and refreshments to the passengers at the airport. Beyond that, hotel accommodation and transfer facility are to be provided.

By way of guidelines there are international food safety standards for on-board catering services that have been framed by various organisations including International Flight Services Association. These generally lay down norms like the distance between airport and kitchen, keeping premises free of rodents, and so on.

Largely, airline catering adheres to these norms. Even if the fare offered by them are not great these days, rarely are they found wanting in food hygiene unlike the case with the Indian Railways. In a scathing report in 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General cited an incident when a passenger on a Lucknow–Anand Vihar double decker train had ordered a cutlet but noticed an iron nail while consuming it. Cockroaches and rats were seen in the pantry car in train numbers 12260 (Duranto Express-ER) and 12269 (Duranto Express-SR).

Though food is still not optional on trains like Rajdhani and Shatabdi, it has to be bought in other trains that have a pantry car or from vendors that board at various stations if there isn’t a food coach. In that respect, the food business for the railways is more segregated and widely spread compared to flight kitchens. But this surely cannot be the reason for sub-standard hygiene conditions. Unlike the airlines, the Railways, have a prescribed weight and volume for food served on-board to give passengers value for money. But while meals and water bottles on airlines are getting smaller by the day, those on railway routes are in dire need for strict hygiene standards preferably enforced by a third agency.

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