- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

Pie in the sky — or even a sandwich or apple — has long ceased to be the norm for air travelers flying coach class on commercial flights in the U.S.

But for those lucky enough to sit in the front of the plane, the culinary options are significantly more sophisticated than a tiny bag of pretzels and a 6-ounce cup of soda.

As the industry comes out of its slump after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, some airlines have been upgrading their menus for first- and business-class fliers.

“Airline food is much more gourmet than people think,” American Airlines spokeswoman September Wade said. “We are taking a little bit different approach than in the past with our food, because we believe it’s a major aspect of a person’s flying experience.”

American last year hired several established restaurant chefs to revamp its menus for first and business class and for all cabin classes on long-haul international flights.

Premium-class passengers on domestic flights can look forward to a filet of beef, cilantro potatoes, salmon with sweet potatoes and ice-cream sundaes.

“Culinary trends have changed, and what people want has changed,” Ms. Wade said.

United Airlines overhauled its menu in 2004 under the guidance of its full-time executive master chef, Jerry Gulli.

United’s first- and business-class menu options include filet mignon with chipotle red pepper and Dijon mustard, chicken parmesan with smoked mozzarella and marinara sauce, braised breast of duck and fried scallops and prawns.

The airline also retains a sommelier as a wine consultant.

“At the end of the day, the biggest concern for most passengers is price,” United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said. “But to keep up their loyalty, especially for first- and business-class passengers, you have to make their flying experience a pleasant one.”

Northwest Airlines upgraded its first- and business-class menu this past summer after surveying its frequent-flier passengers and consulting with chefs. The result is a menu with lighter, healthier meals, spokesman Dean Breest said.

Northwest also now offers passengers two entree choices, instead of one, for all meals.

Continental Airlines hasn’t significantly overhauled its menu since 1993, Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark said. But the airline periodically tweaks its meals with the help of its “Congress of Chefs,” which includes 11 chefs who work or consult with the airline on its menus.

Continental serves its premium-class meals in courses, which include appetizers and made-to-order sundaes.

First class “is a premium product, and just like any premium service, people expect something special,” Ms. Clark said.

International flights also pose special challenges. When American was planning meals for a Shanghai route, an Asian chef working on the menu proposed serving jellyfish — an Asian delicacy that’s mostly unfamiliar to American palates. The chef’s proposal was politely rejected, Ms. Wade said.

“You have to strike a balance and find the middle ground,” she said.

Gourmet-style meals aren’t limited to the major “legacy” carriers. Alaska Airlines’ menu showcases foods produced in the state and the Pacific Northwest. In December, the carrier will begin offering fresh wild Alaska salmon entrees on some transcontinental flights in the first-class cabin, beer from the Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau and mints by Seattle Chocolate.

Fine dining in the air is nothing new. In the 1930s and 1940s, airlines such as the now-defunct Pan American World made dining a priority, said Tim Brady, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“Those were the days when flying was a luxury,” he said. “You’d have mostly male flight attendants, towels over their arms, serving meals that were as good as you’d get in the finest restaurant.”

As flying became more common for Americans in subsequent decades, the quality of food suffered.

“By the 1970s, the food was not particularly wonderful. You’d get a dried piece of meat or something, but you cleaned your plate because you were hungry,” Mr. Brady said.

Food service took another hit in the late 1970s when the federal government deregulated the airline industry, forcing carriers to be more profit-conscious and cut back on meal service, he said.

Good riddance, says travel agent Stuart Carroll.

“Frankly, the best first-class meal I’ve ever had was comparable to an average meal at a restaurant,” said Mr. Carroll, owner of Carroll Travel on Capitol Hill. “Airlines are in the transportation business. I think they’re more interested in getting your backside in a seat and getting you to you where you’re going than providing a dinner and a show.”

Airline officials say they don’t pretend that eating at 35,000 feet is the same as on terra firma.

“That’s just physically impossible,” United’s Ms. Urbanski said. “When you cook a meal on the ground, freeze it and then reheat it on the plane, it’s just not going to be the same as a four-star restaurant.”

Even if foods could be prepared from scratch onboard, passengers might not taste the difference, as a person’s taste buds lose sensitivity because of the low humidity and air conditions of a pressurized cabin.

But most fliers don’t seem to care much about food these days, as long as they get a good deal on their ticket, Mr. Carroll said.

“It’s been so long since airlines offered food that [coach passengers] don’t expect it anymore,” he said. “If people are hungry, they know now to bring something to eat onboard.”

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