Peanuts and Airlines

There is nothing better than hearing your stewardess offer you an ice cold drink and a pack of peanuts after the hustle and bustle of security check-in. But have you ever asked yourself, why peanuts? Eating peanuts are a familiar part of air travel, similar to snacking on peanuts at a ballpark game. It is a tradition that goes back as early as the 1930s.

Delta Service 1940
Photo courtesy of Delta archives

The Golden Age of Air Travel marked an era of luxurious in-flight dining with the introduction of kitchens in airplanes.  From serving breakfast to seven-course dinners, airlines provided an upscale dining experience. It wasn’t until 1970 that Southwest Airlines, headquartered in the peanut-growing state of Texas, became the first to serve only peanuts [1]. Southwest was marketed as the “peanut airline” offering low fares for minimal service. This pioneered a change in airline services. In 1978 [2], Congress deregulated the aircraft industry and saw a drop in airfare.  Peanuts were a low cost fit for airlines and allowed them to cut back on extravagant meals. Delta Airlines, whose home state of Georgia is the number one producer of peanuts in the US, served peanuts, cheese, and crackers to passengers on flights when no meal was served [3].

Longtime employee at Delta, Keith Armes shared a comment regarding snack peanuts, stating [3], “From all I have ever encountered during the snack selection process, peanuts have always been at the top of the list due to these qualities:

  • Small, easy to serve (in single use packaging), good shelf life
  • Relatively inexpensive (compared to other nuts such as almonds, cashews, pecans, or walnuts)
  • Provide a higher level of protein per serving (important if that is all the “food” offered on-board for a flight) and are promoted as a much more nutritious snack.”

Not only were peanuts low-cost, they could satisfy general tastes. A study conducted by U.K.’s University of Manchester found that background noise – such as an airplane engine – and dry air weakens our ability to perceive sweet and salty tastes [4]. From these results airlines often selected foods with salt to counteract blandness. While peanuts served on airlines are often lightly salted, they are a lower sodium option than other common airline snacks like pretzels, which have 352mg of sodium per ounce compared to peanuts’ 116mg.

Today, peanuts are still a staple on flights and are engrained into the culture of several brands, such as Delta and Southwest Airlines. Southwest has a peanuts theme for its “Nuts about Southwest” blog that explores the airlines’ recent news and ongoing initiatives. The airline also served more than 106 million bags of peanuts in 2015 [5]. 

[1] Key Moments In The History Of Southwest Airlines;
[2] A history of in-flight food;
[3] Delta Flight Museum Archives 
[4] Woods AT, Poliakoff E, Lloyd DM, Kuenzel J, Hodson R, Gonda H, Batchelor J, Dijksterhuis GB, Thomas A: Effect of background noise on food perception. Food Qual Preference. 2011, 22: 42-47. 10.1016/j.foodqual.2010.07.003.
[5] Southwest Corporate Fact Sheet;  

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