While complimentary meals have all but disappeared for most coach flights, there's a whole new culinary landscape for first class. In the latest effort to lure customers and create buzz, airlines are serving up gourmet menus cooked up by celebrity chefs.
Travelers flying to South America or Japan on United Airlines can feast on award-winning chef Charlie Trotter's appetizer of sauteed prawns and crispy short rib wontons with organic Thai barbecue sauce and chilled sweet-and-sour cucumber relish. Going to Europe on American Airlines? Try the rosemary-scented shrimp drizzled with garlic sauce and served with lemon rice and artichokes.
"Everything has been upgraded," says Stephan Pyles, who is known for his creative Southwestern cuisine and has signed on as one of American's three culinary celebrities. "Just as the customer in a restaurant has become more sophisticated, refined and demanding in terms of their food, that demand has filtered to the airlines."
For Delta, hot Miami chef Michelle Bernstein came up with entrees such as roasted chicken breast with goat cheese and pepper pesto crust served with polenta and ratatouille. Pair that with a wine picked out by the airline's sommelier or shake it up with a "Mile High" mojito from Rande Gerber's signature cocktail menu.
"Shaking the cocktails in the aisle, it's a very exciting and cool part of the atmosphere of the aircraft," says Jake Frank, Delta's Director of Product Development and Delivery.
For those stuck in coach, on the other hand, an airline somelier might sound like a punchline.
Thanks to financial pressures that began with the 2001 terrorist attacks and have only worsened as fuel prices have soared, complimentary coach meals have become an endangered species. Continental is the only major U.S. airline that still offers complimentary meals - designed by their "Congress of Chefs" - in economy class for domestic travel.
While most of the gourmet action is in first class, Delta Air Lines enlisted celebrity chef Todd English to design its fee-based coach meals - a chicken bistro salad with goat cheese crostini and organic spinach for $8 - available on certain flights longer than 2½ hours.
"There is no question that competition is fierce in this industry and we are looking for ways to differentiate," says Frank. "People will choose to come back with us, creating repeat business and loyalty."
Preparing and presenting airline food still has its challenges that even celebrity chefs can't alter. Airline meals are prepared cafeteria-style hours before they are served, and food 30,000 feet in the air doesn't behave the same way it does on the ground.
"Just because the food is gorgeous and delicious in a restaurant doesn't mean it will be that way in the plane," says Bill Oliver, vice president of the Boyd Group Inc., an aviation consulting firm.
Travelers seem to agree. Web sites dedicated to user reviews of airlines abound with tales of disappointing food.
"Although it sounded promising, this meal tasted as if it was prepared last month," one first-class passenger traveling from Atlanta to Zurich wrote on AirguideOnline.com.
Others, however, have seen more promise. "This was probably the best meal I've had in an airplane," a business-class flyer going from Newark to Honolulu wrote. "The steak, though slightly overcooked, was tender and juicy, the vegetables were fine, the risotto cake was delicious, and the sauce accented the meal nicely."
If it's not quite restaurant quality, don't blame the chefs. Aircraft pressurization can make food dry and flavorless, says Guillaume de Syon, a history professor at Alleghany College who has written about the history of airline food. Pressurization can affect passengers, too.
"Your taste buds change, your breathing changes, you get stuffed up and it affects how things taste. You become very thirsty and people tend to drink alcohol, when they should be drinking water," de Syon says.
And while the meals are designed by a celebrity chef, they certainly aren't made by them. The thousands of meals served each day are prepared at airport catering companies like LSG SkyChefs or Gate Gourmet.
US Airways and Northwest decided not to join the celebrity chef trend. Instead, US Airways announced last fall it has upgraded its first class and fee-based coach menus to provide healthier and better quality food.
"We don't think that customers really care who 'designed' their meals or that they choose which airline they're going to fly because of the celebrity chef. They just want the meals to taste good," US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder explained in an e-mail.
This isn't the first time airlines have turned to celebrity chefs to dazzle passengers - the trend has come and gone through the decades, Oliver says. Opting out may be a smart money-saving move for airlines.
"The travel decision is based on three fundamentals: pricing, schedule and frequent flyer card," he says. "I just don't see food being in the top three."
English understands the in-flight challenges, but says the food doesn't have to suffer because of the environment.
"It's 30,000 feet in the air, but now people can get a decent organic salad and a cheese and fruit plate with a nice glass of wine," he says. "How hard can that be?"