Meal Tickets

Are airline meals worth the cost?

Two things occurred to us while working on this week's topic. First, the Burning Question crew should never be allowed to roam unsupervised through O'Hare airport in Chicago. Second, the English language needs more words.

How else can you explain it? There's simply no way to describe the intonation of a recent immigrant with modest vocabulary skills imploring us over an ancient public address system to assemble at a specified gate. We finally gathered the crew together again by following groups of uniformed officials, then stumbled around the library for several days searching for some appropriate phrase. Brando on tranquilizers? Alan Greenspan speaking through a shizzolator?

We're probably inured to language abuses, anyway. If Quincy Carter stands in the pocket, he's considered "heroic." The soldiers garrisoning Halliburton's operations in the Middle East are "defending American freedom." ESPN airs last year's games on their "classic" network while musicians "sample" from previous works.

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And now the airlines claim to offer "gourmet" meal service.

This week's Burning Question refers to in-flight food-purchase programs run by several carriers, including Midwest Airlines, U.S. Airways and United. Instead of plopping an unwelcome tray in front of every passenger, flight attendants now roam the aisles selling prepackaged items with lofty descriptions. One server promised a salad of "young, small greens with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing" or a sandwich of "roast beef and caramelized red onions on a ciabatta roll." On another flight, we agonized over a choice of something with lemon basil aioli or something with Szechuan almonds.

Press information pumped out by the airlines dances around the culinary merit of the fee-for-service meal plan. Midwest, the first to introduce an onboard purchase program, refers to their "deli-style" options. American Airlines, which began testing gate-area food kiosks in September, labels their selections as "gourmet-style." U.S. Airways touts "restaurant-quality" menu items--although on our flight to Pittsburgh last week, a flight attendant identified their meal choices as "gourmet" with a hard "t."

LSG Sky Chefs, the largest in-flight catering firm--which is a lot like claiming to be the leading producer of network sitcoms or the world's top supplier of fine Scottish cuisine--creates meals based on recipes from such stellar restaurants as T.G.I. Friday's and Hard Rock Café. They plan to change menu items each month. We suspect that means they will rotate between turkey sandwiches and chicken salad.

Yet none of this directly addresses the Burning Question.

Surveys conducted by LSG Sky Chefs suggest support for onboard meals. Indeed, 83 percent of passengers rated the dishes served on various airlines as good or very good. Almost two-thirds indicated a willingness to purchase items again.

Of course, these are people who actually requested airline food.

The questionnaire is cleverly imprecise, which explains the sizable majority of in-flight diners willing to try the stuff a second or third time. Only two of the eight questions pertain to food quality; one deals with price, and the others ask for travel information. And the response options are skewed to boost positive feedback: Would you buy an in-flight cafe meal again? Definitely, probably, maybe, probably not or definitely not. Four of the five indicate a willingness to purchase items again.

So the Burning Question crew traveled aimlessly about the country last week consuming cream-cheese croissants, barbecue chicken salads, walnut chicken salads, cinnamon walnut cookies and free-range walnut-fed chicken-style croissants.

We happen to love grocery-store cream-cheese frosting, so the nonchicken croissant received strong marks. The other items were comparable to chain-restaurant fare: unchallenging but palatable.

Our favorite part of the experience is yet to come: reimbursement.

You see, LSG Sky Chefs provides a handy, fill-in-the-blank receipt. Yep, we jot down the price and hand the bill to our editor, no questions asked. Breakfast on the flight from D-FW to Pittsburgh cost $45 each, by the way. Lunch, from Charlotte to D-FW, ran a whopping $75 per person. Dinner, well, let's just say that when the reimbursement check comes through, we'll be able to afford a new batch of mail-order brides. (Editor's note: The day that check comes through, they'll have to deliver his brides to hell, along with their snowsuits. )

This week's Burning Question, then, draws a qualified yes. There are worse things than spending $10...um, 75 bucks for a mundane but palatable meal.

Naturally, it makes more sense to arrive early and stake out a spot at Chili's or Wolfgang Puck's. In fact, the best meal we found on our excursions was a cup of coffee chased by a Jameson double at Wolfgang Puck's O'Hare location. Make that several coffees with several additional chasers--hence the paging fiasco and a series of harmless alleged incidents.

Although we prefer to call it all a "misunderstanding."

 
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