What is this “thing” in my airline meal – and what are you going to do about it?

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If you’re a regular reader of this site, it may seem hard to believe, but even first-class passengers sometimes need help.

Randall Hartwick is one such person, a man whose case of an unpalatable airline meal appears to be the victim of a merger — in this case, the unfortunate combination of American Airlines and US Airways.

Last summer, Hartwick and his wife were passengers on an American Airlines flight from Dallas to New York’s LaGuardia International Airport. The airline upgraded him to first class.

And that’s where our story begins.

The flight was going well until our lunch was served.

I ordered the chicken salad and began eating my meal. When I had finished about half of my meal, I moved a piece of lettuce, and underneath it, was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen on a plate.

I don’t know if it was plant, animal or something else, but it was dark brown and very large. It was slimy on the outside, but so hard I couldn’t push my fork through it.

I have a pretty strong stomach, but it took all I had not to vomit. After discovering this thing on my plate, it occurred to me that I since I had already eaten half of my meal, it was as if I had put this brown, slimy object of unknown origin in my mouth.

Quite honestly, I have not been the same since.

I have no idea what types of bacteria or disease this item may have contained and what I may have been exposed to.

Hartwick snapped some photos of the foreign object in his meal. He summoned a flight attendant.

“She took the object, bagged it, and told me she would file a report, send the object to a lab for analysis and provide me with the results of the analysis,” he says. “I have sent several letters and made several phone calls to get absolutely nowhere.”

Now, let’s pause for a reality check.

To even be on a flight that serves food is a rarity, and as a platinum-level elite, Hartwick was sitting in the good seats while others on the plane suffered in the squalor of modern-day economy class, complete with zero seat pitch, sensory deprivation and “you-get-what-you-pay-for” attitude from the crew members. Well, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but my point is, the contrast between the “haves” and “have-nots” is stark.

To some readers, this complaint almost rises to the level of those whiny elite-level frequent flier apologists asking me to strong-arm an airline into honoring a mistake airfare.

But not quite. This passenger has a legitimate grievance. Once you get past the airline industry’s caste fixation, it’s pretty clear that he received a substandard product, and was then strung along for months.

Not exactly the American way, is it?

Eventually, the case made it to the right person’s desk. Out of the blue, a claims adjuster from American phoned Hartwick and offered $500 to settle the case.

“Although my initial complaint was with the food, it has escalated to a total lack of follow-through on American’s part,” he says. “I still have not seen any analysis of the object, so I have no idea what I was exposed to.”

Fair enough. I checked with American, which was quick to point out that the incident occurred before the merger.

“It may be tough to track down folks who have personal knowledge and we may need to search records,” a representative told me.

What’s more, the incident had been escalated beyond customer service and into the hands of the risk management department, which handles claims of this nature.

American agreed to follow up with Hartwick and share the internal documents he’d been promised. As to sweetening the $500 offer, that seems unlikely.

So today’s question is, would you take $500 from American Airlines if you found something dark and slimy in your salad?

Did American Airlines offer Randall Hartwick enough compensation?

View Results

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • dave3029

    I haven’t flown in a few years now, but from what I’ve been reading from several different sources, Alaska Airlines seems to be one of the few airlines that “get it” and provide a better standard of service than most other airlines these days.

  • innchfromnj

    I would not have accepted anything until I was informed as to the object.
    The more hazardous, the larger the settlement.

  • Carchar

    With many politicians wanting to completely eradicate the FDA and USDA, success in that will only make it worse.

  • MarkKelling

    This has nothing to do with the opulence of 1st class in relation to economy. A reference to that is misplaced in this article. This is simply about someone who found a disgusting element in a meal. Oh and every flight I am ever on serves food – wether it is peanuts on southwest or gourmet items on Singapore or any in between. You might have to pay extra on the plane for it, but it is there. If your biggest concern is that you don’t get fed when you fly , pick a different airline!

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I wonder how large the check would have to be to set things right with him?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’d guess the flight attendant dumped it in the trash. Maybe I’m wrong, but just thinking it is unlikely the sample ever made it to a lab anywhere. The correspondence with the airline wasn’t exactly promising with them saying they’d have to search records and that it might be tough to find anybody who knew anything about it.

  • The Original Joe S

    Your lab of course! So, she sent out the “bug letter”, hah?

    Years ago, the story goes, when people still traveled in Pullman
    sleeping cars, a passenger found a bedbug in his berth. He immediately wrote a letter to George M. Pullman, president of the Pullman’s Palace Car Company, informing him of this unhappy fact, and in reply he received a very apologetic letter from Pullman himself.

    The company had never heard of such a thing, Pullman wrote, and as a result of the passenger’s experience, all of the sleeping cars were being pulled off the line and fumigated. The Pullman’s Palace Car Company was committed to providing its customers with the highest level of service, Pullman went on, and it would spare no expense in meeting that goal. Thank you for writing, he said, and if you ever have a similar problem–or any problem–do not hesitate to write again.

    Enclosed with this letter, by accident, was the passenger’s original
    letter to Pullman, across the bottom of which the president had written, “Send this S.O.B. the bedbug letter.”

  • Alan Gore

    My poll answer: yes, with the proviso that the OP did not suffer ill effects. But how does one go about proving that a medical problem occurred, or if claimed symptoms were the result of this particular meal?

    There is no substitute for getting an independent lab report on The Blob.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    thanks to dodgy US lawyers, u won’t ever get to see an analysis.
    It actually looks like a bone.
    Stop carrying on. You sound like a spoilt brat & you didn’t pay for 1st class !!!!

    You sound like those idiots who think

    I’m in 1st class I must be important. Get over it. 1st world problem.

    People are dying in Iraq.

    Need to enlist the NRA to get rid of the lawyers, who are stuffing up the world.

  • Vec14

    Airline food prep kitchens are still subject to the same health and safety laws restaurants and food manufacturing plants are. I’ve worked in a few restaurant kitchens in my younger days and while I was a little shocked initially at what went on and what was passable for inspections, it hasn’t stopped me from eating out.

    I’ll also admit to knowingly eating ants and crickets that were served as delicacies – of course at that time we were drinking enough tequila to kill anything (including perhaps some inhibitions).

  • TonyA_says

    The food he just chewed and went down his tubes probably like worse than that :)

  • TonyA_says

    Bitter vodka for the stomach. Thanks, I’ll use this next time. Ah, how much of this stuff do I have to drink?

  • Cybrsk8r

    So does you soup, until you find a boger in it.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Maybe the only time in airline history where a 1st class passenger wished he were in the back munching on that half-ounce back of pretzels.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I never thought of it as bitter. I don’t know. I have seen good results with just a single shot. You can probably safely “medicate” at a rate of 1 shot every 1.5 hours.

  • Raven_Altosk

    It looks like a turd. Demand to see the “analysis.”
    Gross.
    Ugh.

  • gracekelley

    That looks like a shriveled up dead baby rat!!! That flight attendant LIED sending it to a lab for analysis? Lies. I think he deserves whatever he can get that is disgusting. Frankly, if people knew what was roaming around on some of the catering trucks no one would touch anything from the airlines. Yuck!

  • LonnieC

    Okay. Let’s consider the facts (and just the facts). He was served food (how, what class, paid or not, all immaterial). There was something in the food that shouldn’t have been there (undisputed). He was properly disgusted. The airline said it would have it analyzed (but either didn’t or has the results but won’t tell him what they are). Was he damaged? Legally, yes, although to what extent is a matter for discovery (short term? permanently?). Should he take the $500? If he just wants the matter closed, yes. But not if he wants to follow up legally. If he does, discovery should clarify what was in the food, what the airline found out, and the extent of his injuries. And let’s stop blaming lawyers for representing people who are in this kind of situation. Without legal recourse, no company would ever pay damages for any injury, ever. (Yes, I know, I’m a lawyer, so apparently whatever I say is self-serving….)

  • Laura616

    I think I would rather deal with the slimy thing than get Scabies which was what happened traveling business on United. It was beyond horrible and they need to change out the seat coverings from fabric to leather or whatever everyone else uses. As the slimy thing illustrates, you never know what you are going to encounter on a plane these days.

  • Carrie

    I know 2 people in the airline food business (SkyChef) who started out preparing and assembling meals. They tell me over the years (in their opinion) cleanliness standards have slipped in the prep areas. It’s not always the company’s fault though…..Sometimes it’s the employee who just wants to finish their shift and not take the extra time to call the managements attention to any problems on the line.
    If this happened to me, I would not be concerned about 500 bucks. I would want to know exactly what this thing was in my meal and how it could affect me. But how do you do that if you have to turn this thing over to the airline/food company that served it? Once it’s out of your hands, it’s out of your hands.

  • BMG4ME

    So that put them in the same position as I am every time American serves a meal on this flight in first class. Because I have a special meal and American doesn’t serve special meals on most domestic flights, my meal is worth nothing to me too.