Dining Service Items This Page Updated January 7, 2001




by R. R. "Dick' Wallin

One of the fastest growing and most interesting segments of airline memorabilia collecting is the dinnerware used by the world's airlines, dishes in particular.

Some airlines first began serving meals of sorts on board aircraft about 1930, although the photos which exist of these meal settings provide more questions than answers.  Most are posed publicity pictures, and perhaps the chinaware shown is just generic pieces gathered for the photographs.  The earliest marked china which we can document dates from the middle 1930's.

Generally any china pieces from before WWII are very rare and highly sought after. Prices likewise reflect the rarity and some pieces from that era are nearing the thousand dollar mark.  Not only are these pieces valuable because of their age, but also due to scarcity.  Today's airlines have fleets of several hundred planes each carrying a hundred or more passengers, but in the 1930's even the majors had only maybe a couple dozen planes each holding a few dozen passengers.

American and PanAm had some of the earliest examples of nicely marked china, with PanAm having the famous Flying Boats, the china which is quite rare and highly sought after. Most of the early china was very lightweight so as to not overload the planes, but there are several exceptions with both AA and PanAm. 

At this point in time it is impossible to say positively that the early heavyweight china was actually used on board; perhaps it was used in executive dining rooms at company headquarters? Or in the case of PanAm, perhaps in the hotels which they operated in places such as Guam and Wake Island.

While the postwar era found most of the larger airlines, both domestic and foreign, having china, some of the smaller carriers did not get into chinaware until the jet era. Delta and Continental are examples of those who used plastic dishes in the prop era.

The early jet era was undoubtedly the Golden Age of fine airline china.  Each carrier competed with the others for speed and service and the service often included what types of steaks or lobsters that you could expect to be served.  Many of the small foreign carriers got their first china on their first jets.  The 1960s and 1970s marked an era in which any self-respecting country showcased itself with its brightly painted jets.  Unfortunately, even today many countries with millions of starving residents will find money for the latest aircraft for their national flag carrier.

In the U.S., the coming of the jet era also ushered in the common practice of segregating the passengers between First Class and Economy; in some cases the economy sector did not eat from china, but plastic dishes, or even paper. The 1990s marked a drastic cutback in meal service among all domestic airlines, yet still today, all domestic carriers do use china in their First Class cabins, some of it more fancy than others.  Some carriers also have Business Class sections. Usually the china used there is less fancy than that used in First Class, or in the case of some small carriers there is no china at all in Business Class.

By no strange coincidence, most of those domestic carriers which have international routes, use different china on the international flights.  The reason is very simple; those travelers who fly internationally are used to a higher level and service and elegance provided by overseas airlines, and they must reciprocate in order to adequately compete.

Today virtually every foreign carrier of any size has nicely marked chinaware, in most cases, it is exquisite, beautiful, delicate and classy. Most have salt and peppers made of china, bearing the airline's name and/or logo.  These are a popular collectible because of their small size and beauty. And this is not just dime store china; Noritake, Wedgewood, Spode and Royal Doulton provide much of the china used by foreign carriers.

Many of you may by now be saying, fine, but how does one acquire these items? The best simple answer is at the airline memorabilia shows.  Airline dinnerware is probably the most commonly found collectible at the shows, and the variety is often astounding.

Much of the china seen at the shows has come from legitimate sources. When airlines change their logo or their china design, they will sell off the older material or give it to employees. Much of the china is in the hands of catering operations around the airline system and when a change in design is made, the instruction is given to dispose of the older items. The result is sometimes a donation to a charitable organization, sometimes given to employees, or sometimes simply thrown in a dumpster.

In other instances, china is "liberated" by passengers, but in most instances, a request by a passenger to a flight attendant will result in the passenger being given a salt and pepper set or a cup & saucer, etc.   On some foreign airlines, a "gift box"  is given to First Class passengers, the contents being a set of salt and peppers identical to those used on board. So if you have a friend or business associate who is flying on a foreign carrier in Business or First Class, tell him or her to ask for a piece of dinnerware as a souvenir for you.

To view images of a variety of airline china, click here.

In future installments, I will get into specific dinnerware patterns used by specific airlines, discuss their rarity and value, etc.  In the meantime, should you have any questions, feel free to email me at rrwallin@aol.com.

This category will cover collectible items such as china, glassware, silverplate, flatware, salt and pepper shakers, trays, liquor miniatures, plasticware, swizzle sticks, etc.