updated 6/2/2008 10:28:13 AM ET 2008-06-02T14:28:13

“The meals on this airline are terrible — and the portions are so small!” Airline food has been the province of stand-up comedians for years, but the new offerings for sky-high dining are no joke — at least not in first and business class, and especially not on leading international carriers that use food and drink to woo customers.

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Money is behind the push to upgrade airline food. Premium passengers get most new fine-dining options because they can afford to pay for them, and profitable international airlines offer many of the most succulent items and individually customized service because they can afford to provide them.

Cash-strapped U.S. carriers actually cut their spending on food to $3.40 per passenger in 2006 from $5.92 in 1992, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and only one legacy carrier — Continental Airlines — still serves free full meals in domestic economy class. But U.S. airlines are nevertheless rolling out new menu items in first and business class and on long-haul international routes.

“Food and beverage service is a way for United to differentiate itself from our competitors,” said United spokesman Jeff Kovick. United works with chef Charlie Trotter and wine expert Doug Frost, who Kovick says is one of only three people in the world to be both a master sommelier and master of wine, to design meals that “are fresh and healthy and have an international flair.”

Champagnes and 10 wines
United upgraded its food and wine last year when it introduced business-class flat-beds on international routes. “People want to leave the plane feeling refreshed and energized, especially business travelers on their way to meetings,” Kovick said.

On a United flight from Beijing to San Francisco in December, United’s business-class menu featured pan-seared filet mignon with porcini cream sauce as one of three entrees and offered a William Fevre 2005 Chablis Champs Royaux along with nine other wines and champagnes.

Meals that sound great on paper can be bland in the air. Most airline meals are cooked on the ground and frozen, then re-heated in cramped aircraft galleys, and finally served in dry, air-conditioned cabins to travelers whose taste buds may be dulled at 35,000 feet.

But airline culinary experts say they are learning more about what works in the sky. Some chefs taste-test dishes while aloft. In first class on Cathay Pacific Airways, one of Asia’s Tiffany carriers, flight attendants prepare fresh rice in a rice-cooker on board the aircraft.

Lobster thermidor in the sky
Some foreign carriers never downgraded their cuisine in the industry-wide downturn that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, and — so far, at least — many are maintaining their standards in these days of record-high fuel prices.

Singapore Airlines offers first-class passengers a choice of Dom Perignon or Krug Champagne and serves traditional and Asian dishes along with Western favorites, such as lobster thermidor, which spokesman James Boyd described as “the perennial passenger favorite." Singapore is also “one of the only airlines that still serves caviar," said Boyd, stressing that the caviar comes from non-endangered sources.

“We have passengers in the air for up to 19 1/2 hours, and they are entirely, 100-percent dependent on us for food,” Boyd said. However, meals on board are “never just about the food. Meal service is about more than satisfying your appetite. It can help occupy your time. It can entertain you. It can provide interaction between you and the cabin crew.”

Meals with cultural identity
Foreign carriers also try to distinguish their food by offering items that reflect their cultural identity. Etihad Airways, a fast-expanding Abu Dhabi carrier, customizes its desserts by serving tiramisu laced with Arabic coffee and offers a main course of Nawabi mutton rice biryani with dry fruits, coriander and dal.

Scandinavian Airlines features open-faced Danish sandwiches, which SAS spokesman Anders Lindstrom said were largely unknown outside Scandinavia until SAS introduced them in economy class on flights to the U.S. in 1954. SAS also has a make-it-yourself espresso machine in its revamped business class.

Japan Airlines goes further than many, showcasing an airborne version of Kyoto’s traditional “mebaekai" cuisine, which emphasizes traditional Japanese ingredients and cooking methods. JAL makes soba noodles made on the aircraft in first class between New York and Tokyo, and serves relative rarities such as wasabi — the root vegetable, grated by the passenger, not the hot, horseradish-based green paste that most Americans know as wasabi.

Still other airlines try to make dining flexible and fun. British carrier Virgin Atlantic Airways encourages its “Upper Class" customers to order meals and snacks at any point during trans-Atlantic flights, and includes a lively, airborne bar for sipping and socializing in the sky.

Few low-cost carriers are known for their food and drink service, but San Francisco start-up Virgin America finished first among U.S. airlines in a Zagat survey last year for food in first class and second in economy. Moreover, said spokeswoman Abby Lunardini, “We’re the only U.S. airline with a touch-screen seatback ordering system, so guests can order whatever they want, whenever they want it.”

Lunardini noted that a Virgin America passenger used the seatback “e-suggestion box” to ask that the airline serve pre-mixed gin and tonics. “Needless to say, we now have that menu item,” she said.

© 2013 Imaginova Corp.


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