Feasts in flight: do-it-yourself meals

More passengers decide to take along food

November 12, 2003|By Donna Owens | Donna Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Aretha Kline traveled to West Africa last year to visit family, she was the envy of her fellow passengers on the 10-hour flight.

The reason? She had packed a veritable feast to enjoy on board: crispy wings, gourmet potato salad, fresh fruit, homemade cookies and bottled water.

"When I've taken day trips in a car, I pack my own food, but this was the first time I did it for a flight," says Kline, a professional photographer who grew up in Lochearn.

"Because this was such a long flight, I didn't know what to expect. More than anything, I think that once you get to a certain age, you know the things you just won't eat or don't tolerate. You want to enjoy your food even while flying."

She is not alone. Though statistics are scant, anecdotal information from travel agents, industry groups and the airlines themselves suggests that more passengers are saying, "No thanks" to air meals on a tray and "Yes" to brown bags brought from home.

Some passengers are packing their own meals because they are finicky or watching their diets. Others have no choice as budget-strapped airlines cut back on the number of in-flight meals being served. Whatever the reason, as the holiday travel season approaches, it seems a new trend is taking flight.

"Over the years, airline food has always had a bad rep, though it's gotten much better," says Betty Crovo, a travel agent who owns Triumph Travel Inc. in Timonium. "If it's a short domestic flight, most people will make do with snacks. But I find that many of my clients will take their own food, especially if they'll be on the plane longer."

In her experience, Crovo says, travelers with bad allergies, diabetics or those on special diets generally take their own food. "So do families traveling together with children," she adds. "I have even seen businessmen do it. ... I've been on flights where they set aside their laptops, pull out a Burger King or Popeye's bag and start eating."

"We are seeing this more and more," says Diana Kronan of the Air Transport Association, the Washington, D.C., trade group representing 22 major airlines. "As far as I know, there are no policies in place that would prevent passengers from carrying food on board."

Many carriers have actually begun to encourage it. Trying to curb costs after 9/11, airline representatives say it is not uncommon these days for domestic flights of less than four hours to have no in-flight meals. In the meantime, low-cost carriers such Southwest Airlines never have offered much more than munchies and beverages - the theory being that low overhead keeps fares cheap.

"We want passengers to bring the meal of their choice," says Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King. "We offer a complimentary soft drink. For longer flights, we have a snack pack with Oreos or cheese and crackers. Or passengers can grab food at the airport."

Some airlines are taking the airport-food concept to a whole new level. American Airlines has been testing a pilot program called "Buy at the Gate" in which passengers on select flights are given the option of purchasing gourmet-style items from food kiosks near boarding gates.

The company launched the test at JFK International Airport in New York in late September, working with LSG Sky Chefs, a major provider of in-flight catering, on breakfast, lunch and dinner selections.

All the items are conveniently packaged, making them easy to tote onboard, say company officials. And they won't count against passenger carry-on limits - something to consider in these times of heightened security.

Passengers who decide to pack their own meals need to consider airline safety rules. "Plastic knives and forks are allowed," says Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "But passengers are encouraged not to put food or drinks in checked baggage. It can potentially raise concerns with the [screening] machines."

Another key consideration is keeping foods fresh. "When packing food, always remember the time/temperature rule," says chef Richard Stuthmann, director of instruction at Baltimore International College. "Food that could potentially spoil shouldn't be held in warm temperatures for more than four hours. It's best to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold by using insulated containers and ice packs."

In other respects, the rules for creating an in-flight menu are the same as those on the ground. "The key to creating menus is to use your imagination and all five senses," Stuthmann says. "There's always a way to satisfy your taste buds."

Experts say some of the best foods to bring on board include muffins, fruit salads, yogurt, and sandwiches with roast beef, turkey or chicken. Pasta or potato salads prepared with vinaigrette, tossed salads with light dressings, and stuffed pita bread pockets are also good choices.

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