These days, airlines rarely feed you anything resembling a meal while you're flying. The lone holdout, God bless 'em, is Continental, which still serves meals on short flights in coach class. While business and first class dining seems to be getting an upgrade -- some airlines have hired fancy celebrity chefs and brought back real silverware -- us poor slobs in coach class are relegated to honey roasted peanuts and quarter-size packages of pretzels. (Some airlines even charge for such paltry snacks!) So what's a hungry traveler to do?
In an ideal world, it helps to plan ahead -- I always travel with a couple of granola bars, as they're small, nonperishable and nearly indestructible -- but that's not going to cut it on a long flight. Plus, unless you're intimately familiar with an airport, you can't always predict your dining options, and you don't always know how long it will take to get through security. Sometimes, a very plain bagel or a thick, greasy slice of pizza is all you've got. But there's a growing interest to offer travelers something that's way better than, well, nothing.
Enter SkyMeals (tel. 866/759-6325; www.skymeals.com). If you fly out of the Los Angeles area, you may already be familiar with this company, which delivers fresh, tasty, gourmet meals to your house or to the airport before you leave. Co-founders by Richard Katz and Alan Levin were coming back from Paris and, in true foodie fashion, brought on board a spread of pate, cheeses, smoked meats and crème brulee they'd purchased for their return flight. They were the envy of many passengers. "Everyone around me said, 'Why didn't I think of that?'" Katz says. Thus, SkyMeals was born in 2002. "The whole point of this is to improve the quality of life for people when they're on the move," he says.
You can choose from brunch options, lunch, sandwiches, tortilla wraps, entrees, desserts, appetizers, and even kid's meals. The foods come in a soft cooler with ice, and are designed to be eaten at either room temperature or slightly chilled. You must order by 3pm the day before you need it for delivery to Los Angeles, Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley. Katz says some of their more popular items include the shrimp and asparagus fra diavlo, and the tequila chicken breast sandwich. All this gourmet greatness does not come cheap, however. Most items, with the exception of side dishes, appetizers, kids' meals, and dessert, start from $19.75 for the shaved ham and cheddar whole wheat tortilla wrap, with chopped sautéed apples and Dijon mustard, and go up to $29.95 for the European brunch, which comes with orange juice, sliced fresh fruit and yogurt, an assortment of Italian meats, a selection of cheeses such as Brie and goat cheese, olives, rolls, bread and a chocolate treat. But even a sandwich comes with two sides, so you could save them for a snack when you check into your hotel and are too tired, cranky and hungry to wait for room service or scrounge for something in your destination. "We wanted to have a menu that would stand up to your travel day; it has to last, and it has to stay fresh," he says.
Presently, Katz says he knows of no competitors offering similar services in other parts of the country. The rest of us may covet such a travel treat, but luckily the company does plan to expand into the major markets of the United States, such as New York, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, and Boston, and even says there's a "strong potential we'll go international, too."
Alternatively, if you are departing from an airport that has a Wolfgang Puck Gourmet Express (www.wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/wpge/index.php), you have something to choose from beyond the usual overpriced and tasteless suspects. Classified as "fast casual" (think Panera Bread), the brand now known as Gourmet Express launched in 1991 and has 80 locations, including airports in Las Vegas, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Boston and Toronto. The airport locations started with Los Angeles in 1995, and there are ten full service restaurants and nearly 30 kiosks with items you can take to go in airports across the country; Salt Lake City will get a Gourmet Express at the end of this month.
Express offers you a range of experiences -- some of them are restaurants with pizza ovens (Puck's pizza is legendarily delicious), and some of them are grab-and-go kiosks, according to Dana Moncrief, director of brand communications for Wolfgang Puck Worldwide. The Gourmet Express menu features sandwiches, soups, salads and pastas. Each airport menu is slightly different; but expect anything from gourmet pizza (where there's an oven), and signature items such as Spago's famous Chinois Chicken salad to ginger salmon and rosemary rotisserie chicken with garlic mashed potatoes, all well-loved Puck entrée classics. And all of this is easy to get on the plane. "We are located after guests go through security. Our guests enjoy our food on the plane everyday and we work to make our packaging convenient to do so and so as to best preserve the taste of the food," says Moncrief.
Some other options include the reliable soup-salad-sandwich-bakery joint Au Bon Pain (tel. 800/TALKABP; www.aubonpain.com), which has locations in a number of places worldwide including airport locations in Miami, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Newark, New York, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Orlando and Philadelphia. Ed Frechette, vice president of marketing at Au Bon Pain, says that the company has had airport locations since the early 1980s, and that "we'd love to be in more airports." Some, like Boston-Logan and New York-JFK, have locations both before and after the security clearance, he says, but most of them are located past security. The company's travel-friendly food is made fresh to order, and if you buy a pre-made salad or sandwich for lunch, it was made that morning.
Also, the well-regarded restaurant Legal Sea Foods (www.legalseafoods.com) has four locations in the Boston airport including the Legal Sea Foods Test Kitchen in Terminal A. It's possible to have a sit-down meal if you want, but you can also choose from a selection of pre-made sandwiches, with 35 per cent of the menu consisting of seafood and about 65 per cent of other items such as salads, wraps, and Asian food, according to Roger Berkowitz, owner and company CEO. There is another Legal Sea Foods sit-down restaurant location at Reagan National Airport, and every item on the menu is available for take away (except for the raw bar), including live lobster. Everything is freshly made either that day, several times a day, or just as you order it. Berkowitz says that the company is looking at another airport on the East Coast but cannot disclose the location.
But what about all those confusing TSA rules about foods and liquids? In short, any beverage or food purchased past the security screening is permissible, according to Transportation Safety Administration spokesperson Ann Davis. The latest list of banned and permitted items -- food, liquids, personal or otherwise -- is posted on the Transportation Safety Administration's website (www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/prohibited/permitted-prohibited-items.shtm#10). Here's what is most likely to affect you as a hungry and thirsty traveler. You can bring a bottle of water on the plane from home or purchased before security checkpoint, but only if it's three ounces or less and in a clear, quart-sized, zip-top bag. This seems unrealistic. Regarding carry-on liquids, travelers are limited to one, quart size clear plastic zip top bag of travel toiletries of three ounces or less. Regarding other liquid or gel-type foods, you can also bring Jell-O, pudding, whipped cream, or yogurt on board, provided it's in a three-ounce or smaller container. Flyers traveling with infants can bring more than this permitted amount of liquid, but it must be separated from other liquids and gels and presented to the TSA employees for additional screening. The TSA has more information about traveling with children at (www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/children/formula.shtm)
Certainly, travel that involves airplanes is more of a headache than it used to be, for reasons we needn't get into here. But Katz remains hopeful that it still can be an enjoyable experience. "I'm old enough to remember when people used to get dressed up to go on the plane. We'd like to bring back a little bit of the romance. And I don't think there's anything quite like enjoying a good meal."
How do you cope with the hassles of flying? Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Air Travel Message Boards today.