I am writing this post from 32,000 feet above the North Atlantic…By now you have read about my eastbound trans-Atlantic crossing and are probably wondering what my gluten-free meal consisted of on the return journey. Well, let’s just say it was FAR less impressive than the outbound portion of the journey (and I mean we are talking night and day).
Once again our Continental flight was delayed as the flight crew arrived from their hotel late (read we should have well been in the boarding process when they first were walking to the plane. The maitre de cabine came around during boarding to introduce herself and I made reference to my gluten-free meal which she went to check on and said that the Continental concierge would speak with me. Well, long story short my meal was not boarded and they had to send for it (well, the main course anyway). They held the door and the main course did in fact arrive. Also, for whatever reason (probably fearing any type of confrontation) the concierge in Geneva would not come and speak to me even after the maître de cabine told him too. They simply dumped the entrée (and nothing else) and ran…not good.
Now here is where it gets interesting. The appetizer cart comes and I mention that I have the gluten-free meal and the flight attendant (with a bit of a poor attitude) returns and tells me that there was no gluten-free appetizer boarded and if I wanted anything from the cart. Um, yeah, the deep-fried pastries would just go so well with my Celiac so why don’t I just eat it and this was I can be in pain and the restroom for 8 hours. I understand that people still do not know what gluten is but a bit of sensitivity would have been most appreciated. Being offered Chinese chicken skewers in soy sauce is not an option. His “don’t worry, you won’t go hungry” comment was not appreciated and hardly reassuring.
Miraculously, a plate was rather abruptly placed on my tray table with two slices of possibly the worst chicken I have ever seen. They had a bit of tomato sauce on them and some stray piece of rice – hmmm, much like the entrée I had been served on the way over. Give me a freaking break. Don’t pull something off someone else’s low-fat meal and try to pass it off as an appetizer – particularly when my entrée would be chicken. In fairness the maître de cabine was sympathetic and tried her best to rectify the situation.
She made a point of letting me know that the flight attendant in the kitchen that was plating the meals was Celiac for 12 years and understood what my needs were. He even came out and showed me the salad dressing bottle and talked about how he thought he was Celiac but in the end the tests proved otherwise. So I felt a bit better knowing that I was in the hands of someone who GOT it. Unfortunately, with the exception of my salad, the meal was inedible. A piece of rubberized chicken breast along with rice (which was okay) and overcooked peas and carrots is not my idea of a business class meal (where business class is the highest cabin).
I was able to have the dessert (ice cream) but for the chess presentation the flight attendant cut all of the cheese with the same knife and one of them was a veined variety so that instantly (potentially) contaminated the entire lot. I know that some people are of the mindset that the started to grow the mold, while sometimes gluten-based, can end up gluten-free, but honestly I was not about to find out.
Speaking with the maître de cabine, she told me that the out station meals are often sub-par and she received numerous complaints about the offerings. It is just a shame that the outbound leg of the journey was so impressive and the return leg was a complete fiasco. I have had great gluten-free meals on international airlines and Continental really must get its act together on an international-level if the want to provide a premium experience for travelers with food allergies or dietary restrictions – most particularly in their premium cabins. The maître de cabine gave me a comment form to fill out because she said she received numerous complaints about the quality of the special meals at their various international out stations which raises the question – Why don’t you fix it Continental?
I mean, I know there are people who want a special meal to feel, well, special but for those of us with Celiac disease (among other valid health conditions) that are on restrictive diets out of necessity. Even on my return flight the woman behind me seemed shocked that she had ordered a Low Fat meal and actually (after it was already boarded) decided to have something from the regular menu – must be nice to have that luxury. I was actually offered HER fruit salad plate as an appetizer because she did not want it. Really?!!? If I did not have my shellfish allergy as well I might have been able to scrounge something up off the main menu…alas it was not meant to be. Here’s an idea Continental, why not just have one of your four main entrée choices allergy friendly because quite frankly the existing choices would be difficult for many people with a wide range of allergies, not just Celiac.
The team departing Newark was ABSOLUTELY amazing (major shout out to the entire crew who was led by the most amazing seasoned team lead, Barbara, who made EVERYONE feel at ease and as though they were the only person in the entire business class cabin, BRAVO) – the return crew (with the exception of the maître de cabine and one or two other attendants in the front cabin) was almost put out having to provide service throughout the flight. One in particular, really could not care less and this was in the BusinessFirst cabin. It is a shame that the last part of my trip was not a great experience and likely what I will remember most. My meal consisted of the dry rice and over cooked vegetables along with plain ice cream and my GF pretzels. I could not even eat the potato chips offered because they clearly stated that they were not made in a gluten-free facility – I mean really?
If you are flying Continental internationally from Newark you will likely have a great experience as a food allergy sufferer, particularly Celiacs. If you are returning to the United States, do yourself a favor and make sure that you have a substantial GF contingency pack with you for the duration. I can only offer a “half” recommendation of Continental’s international service. Funny, how European countries are leaps and bounds above the United States when it comes to Celiac but an airlines caterer cannot provide adequate special meal options.
I work hard and when I travel for pleasure I enjoy the comfort and service a premium cabin offers. Continental was 50/50 in the end and as a Celiac I would look elsewhere for my future trans-Atlantic travels.