For Hungry Fliers, the Skies Aren't So Friendly

Not only is airline food bad, there's less of it lately. And more and more passengers are turning to takeout.
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There are some dining venues where you should avoid the food -- for example, hospitals, school cafeterias, county jails and, of course, airplanes.

Who among us, in cramped quarters at high altitudes, has not battled with a rubbery ham-and-cheese sandwich? Gagged on a piece of meat -- at least that's what it looked like -- that was searing hot on the outside and cold inside?

Let's face it, when we think of culinary ambrosia, the middle seat in coach class on flight 342 doesn't come to mind. So maybe it's not such a bad thing that the airlines are serving less and less food.

"Particularly for short-haul domestic trips, there's a clear trend" by the airlines toward cutting back on serving food, says Robert Mann of

R. W. Mann & Company

, a Port Washington, N.Y., airline consulting firm. "What they're really cutting back on is the cost of catering," he explains.

The move away from cordon bleu and toward more peanuts certainly saves the airlines money.

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Report

began cutting back on food service in the early 1990s and says it saved millions in 1998 on food costs compared with what it spent a few years ago.

But some passengers don't like the cuts, particularly those where airlines replace sandwiches in carry-on bags -- like Delta's SkyDeli bags -- with cheese and crackers or carrots and dip. "You can eat only so many peanuts," says Harrison, Ohio, funeral director Kathie Brater, referring to the only food she was served last time she flew.

"The food airlines served was always pretty terrible, but at least it was something," she said recently as she prepared to board a Delta flight from Cincinnati to Tampa. Feeling like she had little choice, Brater grabbed some food to go at an airport restaurant before boarding her flight.

"You're starting to see more and more of that when you travel a lot," Mann says. "I see people buying

McDonald's

(MCD) - Get Report

,

Burger King

, pizza, bagels and other fast food at the airport, and either eating it before they get on the plane or taking it on the plane with them."

Brater stopped for her meal at a new restaurant in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport called

Big Sky Bread's Cafe in the Sky

, which is so geared for take-out food it doesn't even have seating. Everything is to go.

Big Sky is a small Cincinnati chain of sandwich and coffee shops that opened its airport eatery only three months ago. But business has been so brisk that management is thinking about expanding to other airport locations.

"We really knew there would be a market for what we serve, because people aren't getting fed on planes like they once were, and we're a good change of pace from the typical airport fast food," says Keith Kinsey, the company's CEO.

For the airline-flier-friendly figure of $7.37, customers receive a hearty, freshly made deli sandwich, a huge cookie, a bag of chips and a soft drink. All are placed in a cardboard carrying case that's easy to handle. "It's really convenient and very good," Brater said as she headed toward the gate.

Not all fliers are so lucky. Traditional airport restaurants -- generic cocktail lounges serving bad nachos, coffee shops with hot dogs rolling on stainless steel broilers -- still dominate. But nontraditional eateries like Big Sky are popping up nationwide.

US Airways

(U)

spokesman David Castelveter says he sees more people buying take-out food at airports like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, places where the airport terminals resemble shopping malls in that they offer a wide variety of restaurants, sometimes in food courts.

At the recently refurbished and expanded Washington National --

Ronald Reagan

-- Airport, there's

Legal Seafood

and the

ESPN All Pro Grill

. Chicago O'Hare has the

Midwest Gourmet Deli

,

Mexican In a Minute

,

The Grove

health food and

Pizza Strada

.

TGIF

has opened in the St. Louis airport, among other places. And

Starbucks

(SBUX) - Get Report

,

Sbarros Italian

,

Chop Wok

and

Cheers

are in airports around the country.

Castelveter says US Airways, like other carriers, has cut back on food service on some flights in order to offer lower fares. Airline consultant Doug Abby of Washington, D.C., says that's really what customers want. "Customers like to complain and joke about food," he says, "but really, food is kind of low on the priority list. They'd rather have low fares, convenient schedules, advance seat selection, more comfortable seats and fewer delays."

But with more passengers bringing food and drink on board, the Feds are wondering if regulations are needed. Meanwhile, airlines are looking to the

Federal Aviation Administration

for answers, but not finding many.

"We've asked the FAA to review and reconsider how we handle food items brought on board," says Delta Airlines spokesman Todd Clay. "But right now we're going strictly by the book." Meaning, the airline is following some FAA guidelines that state anything brought into a cabin be secured and safely stowed away.

"A box of food would go under the seat, or in the overhead bin, for takeoff," Clay explains. But the steaming Starbucks has to go, so finish it in the terminal. No drinks can be served or consumed while a plane is on the ground. That's also true for first class, according to Delta.

US Airways "neither encourages nor discourages passengers from bringing food on an airplane," Castelveter says, adding, "All we ask is that it's safely stowed."

Susan Adams, spokeswoman for the

American Dietitians Association

in Chicago, says she's been "fascinated to see what the airlines put on those food trays."

"Some of it has been pretty bad ... and high in fat," she says. "But I've seen airline menus a little more reflective of the kind of foods people are eating in general -- more things like sandwiches in pita bread and vegetables and chicken in burritos or tortilla wraps." The same is happening at restaurants opening in airports.

It's always best to ask the airline or your travel agent in advance whether a meal will be served on a flight. Generally, here's what you can expect: flights under 500 miles, peanuts and a beverage; 500 to 1,000 miles, a light snack -- a sandwich, or a bagel or English muffin in the morning; over 1,000 miles, a full meal.

Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. At time of publication, he had no position in the stocks mentioned, although positions can change at any time. Crowley can be reached at

crowleys@cinci.infi.net.