Updated December 19, 2003 -- Coach class airline food probably reached its nadir sometime last year. Long-gone were the days of fine china; heck, long-gone were the days of hot meals. Instead, travelers in galley class on domestic flights have generally been served a limp, nauseating sandwich, or maybe a tiny, overly-salty bag of peanuts.
The gradual elimination of airline food has been an understandable trend: money-losing airlines are looking to cut costs anywhere they can, and frankly, we'd rather they cut their chicken cutlets than raise their fares. After all, that's what sandwich shops in the airports are for -- right?
Maybe not. In recent months, several North American airlines have started selling food on board domestic flights. And while it ain't Jean Georges, the sandwiches airlines are serving seem reasonably priced and pretty tasty.
"When you look at America West's "Buy On Board" meals, it really looks so much better than your regular choice of chicken or pasta," said Marco Hart, founder of AirlineMeals.net (more on him later.)
Now Serving ...
The new airline meals all sound fancy, and they generally taste fine. But the one thing that was obviously missing to us was vegetarian and 'light' options. Song, an airline which prides itself on gourmet cuisine, was only serving the old choices of 'chicken or beef' when we checked, although they were gourmet chicken and beef; Northwest, US Airways and United also had the same fault. Delta, Air Canada and American get big points for offering vegetarian options on the menus they sent us.
Delta's Song spinoff was one of the first airlines to jump wholeheartedly into selling meals, and they promise to use organic and/or local ingredients whenever possible. Song only sells cold food, but they're trying to go gourmet. You can get an Asian chicken salad for $7, a roast beef wrap for $8 or a bowl of yogurt and granola for $3.
Delta obviously had a good experience selling food on Song, because they're now ramping up food sales on their mainline flights. By March 2004, all flights longer than 3 1/2 hours will have food for sale. Entrees such as a ham and cheese wrap, smoked turkey with sundried tomato-pesto-mayo sandwich and California goat cheese salad all go for $8; a breakfast fruit plate is $5.
Northwest is now offering food for sale on 199 flights to and from its Minneapolis and Detroit hubs. The meals are co-branded with TGI Fridays and Einstein Brothers. Breakfasts are $7, with options including an apple crumb cake with fruit, granola and yogurt; lunch or dinner meals are $10, with options such as a tomato pesto chicken sandwich, Caesar salad, and cookies and cream bar.
US Airways sells food on flights of 700 miles or more. They switch restaurant partners and menus every three months; their first quarter 2004 menu is adapted from Wolfgang Puck recipes. Breakfasts are $7 and lunches (a fancy oriental chicken salad or turkey sandwich) are $10. You can find their current menu online at www.usairways.com/travel/inflight/inflight_cafe/index.htm.
American is dipping its toe into the for-sale food field for now by selling food at the gate at the JFK, Dallas and San Jose airports. They put their menu online for all to see. Entrees, for $5-7, include a roast beef sandwich and veggie wrap; there's also a seductive yogurt and fruit parfait for $3.
United is also still experimenting with what they call "buy on board" food. For now, they're selling food on a limited selection of flights to and from Chicago and Denver. Breakfasts cost $7, and lunches and dinners are $10. Different menu items are available on different flights (hey, it's an experiment), so go to United's site to see the full list of flights and meals. Tragically, none of the four rotating menus we saw had anything for veggie-heads.
Air Canada has plenty of choices, but not many flights. They're now selling food on flights between Toronto and Charlottetown, Halifax, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Saint John, Fredericton, Deer Lake and Gander, as well as between Montreal and St. John's. Their food costs between US$5-10, and they're offering hot as well as cold options. Six breakfast selections include a ham-and-cheese croissant, egg sandwich and fruit cup. The five lunch/dinner selections include a bowl of chili, a chicken sandwich and a vegetarian fruit, granola, yogurt and muffin platter.
Midwest Airlines used to have the best meals in the air, but have dropped to pay-for-play on their new Saver Service routes. They didn't get back to us in time for our deadline, but according to www.airlinemeals.net, their $7 breakfast involves Yoplait yogurt, a muffin, a croissant, fruit and granola.
And what of America West? Their "buy on board" test last year was successful, airline execs told the Arizona Republic newspaper this month. They said they'd be selling food on long flights next year, but didn't give many details.
Discount airlines that don't serve meals sometimes sell "snack packs," little boxes of brand-name cookies, crackers and nuts. On Spirit, for instance, the $4 snack packs contain Mott's apple sauce, Kellogg's cereal bars, and products from Keebler's, Smuckers and Kraft. Tiny Great Plains Airlines (www.gpair.com) also gets points for their Krispy Kreme donuts. But if you're flying Spirit, Southwest or JetBlue cross-country, we (and they) suggest you pick up a sandwich in the airport before you depart.
That Looks Tasty!
In case you doubted that everything in the universe can be found on the Internet, check out Hart's AirlineMeals.net Web site, which features photos and reviews of more than 3,000 airline meals from more than 200 airlines. Wondering about the difference between coach class and first-class food? Want to see if the meals on Singapore Air really do look tastier than the ones on United? AirlineMeals.net has all the answers.
Hart says there's no big difference between the level of meals on American versus European airlines, but that the Asian carriers are still ahead. "I think Asian cuisine will always be a little bit ahead of the rest of the world, also in airline catering," he said.
If you'd like to see how far airline cuisine has fallen, the site's history section is a bit of a shock. Check out the "Oktoberfest beer party" spread from a 1974 TWA flight to Germany, with a slew of different kinds of sausages.
But as you bite into your $8 sandwich, think how bad things could be if you were flying on China Xinjiang Airlines (www.airlinemeals.net/meals/ChinaXinjiangAirlines.html) or Phnom Penh Airways (www.airlinemeals.net/meals/PhnomPenhAirways.html). At least you can probably identify your food ...
What's the best meal you've had while flying? What's the worst? What can the airlines do to improve your onboard dining experiences? Go to our Message Boards and give us the skinny.