Food Flight

At 30,000 ft., will celebrity chefs, brand-name snacks and gourmet salads be enough to unlock your wallet?

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Drew Morris

Virgin America Readers' surveys give Virgin top scores for onboard fare. The avocado hummus on this tapas plate is ridiculously good. Price: $9

Airlines keep coming up with creative ways to tick people off. Spirit Airlines announced this month that it will start charging passengers as much as $45 to bring a carry-on bag. RyanAir is getting ready to install coin-operated toilets. But there may be at least one upside to the current extra-fee-ganza: better airline food.

The buy-onboard movement has inspired airlines to upgrade their menus. Some have teamed with celebrity chefs, others with national chains. Come fall, Continental Airlines, which had been the last major holdout, will stop offering free food on domestic coach flights and start charging for what it promises will be more appetizing fare. Even JetBlue, while not giving up its gratis Terra chips, is testing a pay menu. The twin goal is to generate profits and customer satisfaction as Virgin America has done with its microbrews and freshly muddled mojitos. David Johnson, a mechanical engineer in San Francisco, recently paid $40 more for his Virgin ticket than the price a competitor would have charged him. "I would say I fly Virgin 50% for the food and 50% for the wi-fi and the atmosphere," says Johnson, who dropped $17 on a cross-country flight for a Black Star beer and a chicken tarragon wrap.

But airline food, regardless of the quality, used to cost passengers nothing. In a 2009 Zagat airline survey, only 19% of respondents said they would be willing to pay for snacks on domestic flights. George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog shares their reluctance. "I went on Amtrak's Acela train and had this lime mousse that was so good, I tried to make it at home," he says. "If they can do it well, why can't airlines?"

Planes are tricky because of the cabin pressure and lack of humidity. That may explain Hobica's less than glowing review of the Boston Market chicken sandwich he had on a recent American Airlines flight. "It wasn't horrible," he says. "But it was dry."

Dryness can be a problem, admits Peter Wilander, Delta's head of onboard services, who says the airline abandoned an almond-butter and jelly sandwich in part because it couldn't get the consistency of the bread right. Airlines have to factor in other issues, including messiness (Virgin rejected a chocolate bar that shed flakes that stuck to the seats) and smell (Delta recently experimented with tuna fish and found it can work if it's cut with lemon).

The constraints can be difficult even for celebrity chefs like Todd English, who has created a few signature dishes for Delta's menu. He wants to add foods that get better as they age, like soups and chili. "We just have to find the right thermos," he says.

"Airline food was really awful for a while, but eight out of the last 10 meals I've had have been pretty good," says Aliya Khan, a platinum-level American Airlines frequent flyer. Khan, a designer, was pleasantly surprised that, after sprinting across the Dallas airport to catch a flight, she could buy yogurt and fruit for $3 on the plane. "I think they're pricing really well," Khan says of the airline's $8-to-$10 sandwiches. "In the airport, it's $8, and it's crappy."