What is a sandwich? This simple question has sparked heated debates, legal battles, and even a war. Well, not a real war, but a fierce conflict between European and North American airlines in the late 1950s, known as the Great Sandwich War.
The origin of this war can be traced back to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association of the world's airlines. In 1958, IATA officially recognized economy class as a distinct travel class, separate from first class. Airlines had to follow specific standards and regulations for fares, seating, and services on transatlantic flights.
One of the regulations concerned the menu airlines were allowed to serve economy class passengers. According to IATA, the menu should consist of simple, cold, and inexpensive sandwiches, reflecting the lower price and quality of the economy class. However, the definition of a sandwich could have been more precise, and different airlines had different interpretations of what a sandwich should look like.
The North American airlines, such as Pan American World Airways (PanAm) and Trans World Airlines (TWA), served up typical American-style sandwiches, such as egg salad, roast beef, or ham and cheese layered between two thick slices of bread. These sandwiches were easy to make, cheap to buy, and convenient to eat.
On the other hand, the European airlines presented sandwiches in the open-faced, continental style. These sandwiches consisted of various toppings, such as meat, cheese, vegetables, and sauces, placed on a single slice of bread. The toppings were often elaborate and generous, creating a colourful and appetizing display.
For example, the Scandinavian Air Systems (SAS) flight menu included "five slices of ox tongue, a lettuce heart, asparagus, and sliced carrots—on a slice of bread." Swiss Air offered passengers two dessert sandwiches after finishing their twelve appetizer sandwiches and main sandwiches. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Air France also served up similarly extravagant selections.
The North American airlines were outraged by the European airlines' sandwiches, which they considered violating the IATA agreement. They argued that the European sandwiches amounted to a three-course meal on bread, a level of luxury that was contrary to the ideals of economy class.
They also feared that the European sandwiches would attract more customers, giving them an unfair advantage in the competitive market.
A spokesman for PanAm complained, "We are not in the sandwich business. We are in the transportation business". A spokesman for Swissair defended their sandwiches, saying, "Everyman is entitled to his concept of a sandwich, and we have ours".
The media caught the controversy and dubbed it "the Great Sandwich War of 1958." The war made headlines worldwide, and the public was amused by the situation's absurdity. The American carriers threatened to ban the European pages from American airspace, and the European carriers retaliated by accusing the American carriers of serving "cardboard" sandwiches.
The IATA had to intervene to resolve the conflict and convened a special meeting in London to determine what constituted a sandwich in the air. After much deliberation, the IATA ruled that a sandwich was defined as "two slices of bread with a filling". The ruling also specified the maximum size and weight of the bread and the filling and the types of fillings that were allowed.
The ruling effectively ended the Great Sandwich War of 1958 and restored peace and harmony among the airlines. The European carriers had to modify their sandwiches to comply with the new standards, and the North American carriers were satisfied with the outcome. The passengers were less happy, as they had to settle for less variety and quality in their sandwiches.
The Great Sandwich War of 1958 was a remarkable episode in the history of aviation and gastronomy and a testament to the power and importance of a sandwich. As the British journalist and author John Dickie wrote, "The sandwich is a universal symbol of our modern world: it is fast, convenient, cheap, and adaptable. It is also a source of endless fascination, controversy, and passion".