By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/3/2007 10:44:56 AM ET 2007-12-03T15:44:56

Airline food. The very mention of those two words is enough to provoke a strong — and usually negative — reaction from any passenger.

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But let’s add another word. Good airline food.

Laughing yet? Maybe not. Maybe you’ve heard all about airline efforts to improve their in-flight fare.

Continental Airlines recently unveiled new menus featuring hot gourmet sandwiches such as roast beef and oven-roasted turkey with gouda cheese on marble rye bread. Delta Air Lines introduced new signature entrees from celebrity chef Todd English, like smoked salmon and egg salad croissants and roast beef steak cobb sandwiches. And this summer, Charlie Trotter teamed up with United Airlines to serve up meals such as sweet crab salad on fresh bok choy and citrus-cured smoked salmon.

Yum.

It would be tempting to say that the now-profitable airline industry has turned a corner when it comes to customer service. That it really cares about its passengers. But that might be a little premature.

See, there are a few things the airlines aren’t telling you about the fare up there.

‘There’s no food on this flight.’
Read the announcements of these new in-flight menus carefully, and it’s clear that the food offerings are extremely limited. For example, the Todd English sandwiches were initially only available on flights between New York and Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. Last month, they were expanded to flights longer than four hours. So what will your friendly flight attendant on the “new” Delta offer you on shorter hops? Usually a choice between a package of dry roasted peanuts, Biscoff Cookies or honey peanut butter crackers. But surely the fare on longer flights — like, say, a transcontinental one — has to be better? Not necessarily. “Delta probably takes the dung medal for the worst food,” says Sohail Rana, a professor of medicine in Washington. “On a Washington to Los Angeles flight, all they had was a pepperoni pizza. My family and I are observant Muslims.”

‘Hope you’re not on a diet.’
No one has to tell you that the snack packs offered by airlines are loaded with calories and unhealthy fats. But the latest DietDetective.com survey of airline food suggests it may be a lot worse than you think. “The individually packaged snacks are oversized and have mega calories,” the survey’s author, Charles Stuart Platkin, writes of American Airlines in-flight cuisine. “These snacks should be for a family of four, not one person. They really are a disaster.” Ouch. One carrier, Northwest Airlines, admitted that it doesn’t track the nutritional information in its on-board food. Smart air travelers know better than to indulge. Instead, they buy their food at the airport or bring their own on the plane. “The stores and restaurants in the airports must love it, since people can’t go hours without food,” says Helen Grabauskas, a homemaker from Camp Hill, Pa., who has gone hungry on a flight or two because of the inadequate food selection.

‘Our in-flight cuisine is awful.’
Have a look at the latest Zagat airline survey, and you’ll see that with few exceptions, the food really is terrible. As a group, the major airlines are bottom-feeders, scoring 5 out of a possible 20 points (US Airways, Northwest Airlines, American Airlines) or 6 (Southwest, United). Delta got a 7, which is about 35 percent — still an “F.” One reviewer, when asked to describe the food on a major airline, rated it as “pitiful.” Still don’t believe me? Then check out these real photos of airline meals from the site Airlinemeals.net. Plastic-wrapped sandwich, anyone?

‘Exact change only, please.’
If you think you’re going to be enjoying any of these new and improved airline meals on your next flight, you better either bring cash or pray for an upgrade. The Charlie Trotter meals are available only to first- and business-class passengers, and only on select transcontinental flights domestically. Ditto for the Todd English food, although you can buy some of his selections in economy class for between $2 and $10.

So what do the rest of us get to eat? On United, $5 buys you a Trader Vic’s turkey wrap, roast beef sandwich or a chicken sandwich. Each is served with a bag of chips. American Airlines offers $5 Italian wraps, a turkey and cheese Ciabatta or an Asian chicken wrap. It’s one thing to offer food for purchase on short flights, but Drew Tipton, a senior field specialist for a software company in Cupertino, Calif., was recently offered one of the meals on a transcontinental flight with a stopover. “It just seemed wrong to me, and to several friends who were flight attendants,” he says.

‘There’s a secret menu — and it’s better.’
Your airline probably won’t volunteer this information, but the food is even better if you order from the “secret” menu. And often, the economy class meals from this menu are better than the fare served up front. I’m talking about entrees for passengers with dietary restrictions, such as vegetarians, vegans and diabetics. Be sure to contact your airline at least a day in advance to order the meal. But it’s well worth the call. “Whenever I fly British Airways to London from Denver I order a Muslim meal,” says reader Lynn Ryan. “Out of London, it is restaurant-quality, specially prepared, and really delicious.”

So there you have it. Airlines only offer the fabulous in-flight fare on a handful of flights and make you pay for it when you’re sitting in the cheap seats. The rest of the food is pretty dreadful. If you’re worried about the quality, quantity or availability of food on your next flight, don’t believe the flashy announcements being made by the major air carriers. Bring your own food on board. Or at least, bring exact change.

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