Food Fight United learned the hard way about the power of in-flight dining. But the future of food service in the air is clear.

By Joe Brancatelli

Toward the morning end of a transatlantic flight to Manchester, England, a flight attendant walked through business class ostentatiously carrying a cardboard tray of fresh eggs. After depositing his precious cargo in the galley, he reappeared, sidled up to each groggy passenger, and asked brightly: Can I make you a fresh omelet this morning? Just tell me how you'd like it done.

As a bagel-for-breakfast guy, I declined. Really? We use fresh eggs. I make them myself, you know. No, a cup of coffee would be fine.

This, uh, Opera Oeuf plays out every day on many long-haul flights operated by BMI, a large British carrier once known as British Midland. The airline makes quite the big deal out of its meal service, claiming that business-class passengers are served "international cuisine akin to the very best restaurant food, prepared by a fully qualified onboard chef."

The onboard "chef" is actually a flight attendant with some culinary chops. And for all the theater and flying fry cooks, BMI's onboard offerings aren't particularly different than the victuals served up front on any other international airline.

Airlines often spare no expense or P.R. frippery trying to convince high-ticket premium-class flyers that they are dining miles high on the hog. Famous chefs are signed to create special meals. Pricey champagne and fancy wines flow freely. Caviar still makes an occasional appearance. Ostentatious menus are presented with the solemnity of a prayer book. Depending on the carrier and the distance of the flight, feeding a first-class flyer can run into hundreds of dollars a passenger.

In coach, not so much. If any food is served at all these days, it tends to be the stuff of late-night comedy monologues: mystery meat in even more mysterious gravy, wine in a box, and the ever-popular wilted iceberg lettuce with fluorescent salad dressing. The cost-per-passenger can literally be counted in pennies.

Either way, I've never understood travelers' obsession with in-flight food, and I relish quoting comedian David Brenner: He's always said he didn't go to a diner expecting a flight to Los Angeles, so why should he get on a flight expecting an omelet? And I never forget the brutally frank assessment by one airline executive, who explained to me that airline food is essentially leftovers: It is prepared 24 to 48 hours in advance, wrapped in plastic, stuck in a refrigerator, and hastily and inexpertly reheated before serving.

Yet the galvanizing power of in-flight food is undeniable, a lesson United Airlines learned again last week. Customers of the nation's second-largest airline suffered silently as the carrier began charging for checked bags, raised fares, slashed frequent-flier benefits, and eliminated a slew of other practical amenities. But when United announced last month that it would stop serving free food in coach on some transatlantic flights, passengers pushed back and complained loudly and in large numbers. As a result, for the foreseeable future, the airline will continue to serve its lamentable in-flight coach fare as part of its basic international airfare.

Absurdly enough, though, in-flight food is not actually about the victuals.

"It's 80 percent entertainment and 20 percent hunger," says Jack Foley, the New York-based executive vice president of Aer Lingus. A meal is one trick airlines use to keep passengers diverted during a long flight in a narrow, sterile metal tube.

"It's also a way of marking the passage of travel time for experienced flyers," Foley adds. "On a flight from Dublin, I once sat next to a passenger who started putting on his shoes when the flight attendant announced our tea-and-scones service. When I asked him why, he said, 'You always serve tea and scones an hour and a half before landing in New York, so I know it's time to get ready to get off the plane.' "

It's just as well that in-flight food isn't about gustatory greatness, because meal service isn't easy when you're five miles high. Even coffee is problematic because it's harder to bring water to proper temperature at 40,000 feet. When McDonald's did a Happy Meals promotion with a major carrier in the 1990s, the burger giant had to reformulate the cheese so it would melt rather than liquefy in flight. And forget about gourmet dining. How do you create a four-star meal when open flames are verboten, prep space is nonexistent, knives have rounded edges, and flight attendants must serve dozens of passengers at once using a convection oven?

The future of in-flight food is fairly clear. United's reversal notwithstanding, more and more coach passengers will have to go without, buy on the plane, or bring their own. Most domestic coach flights have already been stripped of traditional in-flight meals. Airlines are rushing to adopt "cashless cabins" and equipping flight attendants with portable credit-card devices so they can sell ravenous flyers more expensive and higher-quality salads, sandwiches, snacks, and wraps.

In-flight food for international premium-class travelers is changing too, but for an entirely different reason. With stricter security regimens in place, passengers spend more time waiting in the airlines' lounges. So airlines are beginning to serve honest-to-goodness food there. The cuisine is better and it costs the airline less.

I've had several wonderful curries in British Airways' lounges. Some of the best dim sum I've had outside of Hong Kong was in Vancouver, Canada, in Cathay Pacific's departure lounge-while I was waiting to fly to Hong Kong. The bacon sandwiches are outstanding at Virgin Atlantic's swanky arrivals club at London's Heathrow Airport. And while I've never eaten there, who wouldn't be seduced by a sit-down meal at the elegant little restaurant nestled inside Lufthansa's First Class Terminal in Frankfurt?

Now if there was just an airline that served a good bagel for breakfast.

The Fine Print.
An update to last week's column concerning the market-driven battle between U.S. carriers that charge for the first checked bag and those that continue to bundle it in the fare. Continental Airlines has switched sides. Beginning next month, passengers flying on discounted coach tickets who do not hold elite status in the airline's frequent flyer program will pay $15.

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