Coffee, Tea Or Gluten-Free?

Four years ago Boston-based designer Judy Samelson was content--if not exactly happy--to eat regular airplane food. Then, one evening on a flight from Toronto to Winnipeg, Manitoba, she glimpsed something tempting on the tray of the woman sitting next to her. "The rest of us had the standard garbage fare--some hideous chicken in some hideous glop," Samelson recalls. "But this woman had poached salmon and a delicious, fresh-looking salad with a small carafe of balsamic vinaigrette." Samelson's neighbor had preordered a gluten-free meal, one that has none of the grain substance often found in heavy sauces and packaged foods. Samelson has been hooked ever since.

Ah, airline food. For years it's been the butt of jokes and the bane of air travel. But the ever-expanding variety of in-flight special meals is changing that--at least for travelers who are in on the airline industry's best-kept secret. Airlines don't advertise their special meals much, in part because they cost 40 to 50 percent more than regular meals. But an increasing number of savvy travelers are finding out that special meals are fresher, faster and, yes, tastier. "Passengers are more sophisticated," says Ricky Ahmed, who oversees meal preparation for Singapore Airlines in New York. "They like to feel they're in a restaurant."

Most major airlines now offer a dizzying array of special meals on long-haul flights. One can have vegan, vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, low-cal, low-purine and lactose-free. Want something that sounds more edible? Try the fruit plate, the raw-vegetable plate or the cold seafood platter. American Airlines offers pizza, burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches--and Weight Watchers entrees for the calorie-conscious. United has a McDonald's Friendly Skies meal, complete with a toy surprise. But the king of airplane cuisine is Singapore Airlines, with its menu of more than 40 different types of special meals. It offers a plethora of vegetarian entrees, from Chinese tofu and black mushrooms to spicy Indian dishes.

The advantage of special meals--for passengers, if not the airlines--is that they require special handling. The airport kitchen staff prepares them last, and they get served first. Not that the airlines want you to know that. "Tracking special meals is the hardest thing in the world for airlines to do," says one airline caterer. So enjoy your crabmeat and shrimp cocktail--but keep it quiet.