This Isn't Your Father's Airline Food

Ask anyone what they think of airline food and you'll likely get some scoffs, eye rolling, even gagging gestures. Maybe someone will sarcastically say, "What airline food? Most airlines don't have peanuts or pretzels these days, much less actual, good food."

Delta Airlines is aware of this. And after a rough few years, the company is doing something about it. The Atlanta-based airline emerged from bankruptcy last year with a new attitude. It changed everything from the logo on its planes to the seating and amenities inside cabins. That includes bringing in celebrity chefs to create upgraded meals – meals the airline likes to call gourmet.

Coach customers must pay a few bucks for a handful of meals Chef Todd English has created, like a breakfast wrap or a California salad. But first- and business-class customers now get entrees from Chef Michelle Bernstein included with the price of their tickets.

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Robin Klein, Delta's general manager of international premium products, says improving on-board food is part of the once-struggling company's new strategy to give customers the very best.

Airlines have always battled for the business traveler, who often pays higher fares than leisure customers. Recently that fight has intensified with a push for even more lavish amenities and services at the front of the plane. International routes — the most profitable — have become the focus of a particularly fierce competition among the airlines.

Delta and other airlines have worked to improve their on-board food offerings.

"We realize the whole industry went through some bad times. But going forward we want to invest in our customer," Klein said.

While these are "nice" perks for passengers, Air Travelers Association president David Stempler said that perks alone usually do not determine purchasing decisions. "It's not going to make a passenger choose between Delta, American or United," said Stempler. "That's usually based on price."

Still, like Delta, other airlines are trying gourmet cuisine from celebrity chefs.

Chef Govind Armstrong of Table 8 in Miami Beach and Los Angeles whips up meals for Air New Zealand. American Airlines serves up Dallas chef and restaurateur Stephan Pyles's creations. Other top chefs like London's Gordon Ramsay and New York's Alfred Portale offer up dish ideas to Singapore Airlines straight from their restaurant kitchens.

Delta's menu possibilities go through several taste tests before executives choose the final appetizers and entrees. And the menus change seasonally. Bernstein's spring menu, featuring freshly prepared dishes like seared filet of beef with sauce au poivre or lamb in pomegranate sauce, comes out next month.

Executives were recently in Miami at Bernstein's restaurant, Michy's, to test summer menu possibilities.

These included duck, salmon and "big, fat, juicy steaks" prepared in different ways. The executives who do the taste-testing know what they're looking for. There's a reason airline food has traditionally been so terrible. It's not as easy as you'd think to cook delicious, quality airline food.

"Up in the air your taste buds mute. So flavors that taste flavorful on the ground might not do so up in the air," Klein said. "So we look for things that have robust flavor, have spice, herbs that really punch on the ground and those are the ones that tend to do the best in the air."

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