Unappetizing Airline Fare?
A decade ago, U.S. airlines spent $6.11 per passenger for food.
Last year that figure was down to $4.17, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
And for the first six months of this year, they spent $3.97 per passenger.
The shrinking numbers don't tell the whole story, of course, especially when you're the one flying across multiple states fortified by a small bag of pretzels and a diet soda.
To the rescue: A sometimes hilarious Web site, www.airlinemeals.net
, tells surfers at the click of a mouse what kind of haute cuisine, or not, to expect on a range of airlines.
Besides color photos of the meals, there are candid, sometimes critical remarks and reviews, and a forum for sharing gripes.
If the meal meant for you looks unappetizing, you can put together your own emergency kit of food. And, experts say, the choices in portable food that won't spoil are becoming more plentiful.
The airline meal Web site is the brainchild of Marco 't Hart, a 32-year-old graphic and Web designer from Rotterdam, Netherlands, who launched it as a lark.
For more than two years he flew from his home to Istanbul, Turkey, to visit his girlfriend every two months or so.
"While in Turkey, I was always photographing everything to show the people at home," he says.
"Sometimes I also took pictures of my meals.
One time my mom asked, "And what do you eat on the plane?"
"That was my reason to take a picture of my meal, which is now Turkish Airlines image 0010 on the site."
Next he searched the Web to see whether anyone else had photographed an airline meal for posterity and found about 20 photos from eight or nine carriers, which he posted.
Things really got rolling earlier this year, when he posted his request for photos of airline meals in four or five online newsgroups.
Since then the photos have poured in, and the Web site now boasts more than 1,000 photos from airlines large and small.
Although meals are subject to change, the photos can give you a general idea of what you'll be served.
Suppose you are flying Aer Lingus, economy class, from Dublin to Los Angeles. Click on Aer Lingus image 013 and take a peek at lunch: chicken in mushroom gravy, potatoes, French beans.
The comment: "Tasted a bit better than it looks. Not much chicken." There's some whining, not surprisingly.
A hungry passenger's remark about the "dinner snack" on an ATA flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C.: "I paid $264 for a ticket, and all they can afford is 15 peanuts and a cookie?"
The site also has a forum for trading info about the food. One Qantas flier asks, "Where has all the good food service gone?
Qantas now presents all meals in economy class in a box, and the food is always boring."
The top complaints, Hart says, are tasteless food, "undefinable" meat, skimpy portions or food that is too hot or too cold. Some passengers -- mostly first-class or business -- compliment.
Some mention presentation; others say the food was the best they ever had on a plane.
If you don't like what you see when you take a look at the Web site or ask your reservations agent, it's easier than ever to pack enough food for the trip.
When travelers ask Terri Rock, a Los Angeles-area family practice physician who has a special interest in travel medicine, what to take, she often suggests the new tuna-in-a-pouch products.
The pouches don't need to be drained and don't require refrigeration before opening. (The products are pungent, though, so you might attract a little unwanted attention from fellow passengers.)
The product PB Slices is another good option. It's peanut butter packaged like individual slices of cheese; each wrapped slice has an ounce of peanut butter and 170 calories.
For more information, see www.pbslices.com
. And take along some Tums, Rock suggests. They're a handy way to be sure you get your calcium. If you eat strange food, they can quell a queasy stomach too.
She also suggests granola bars, beef sticks, Cheez Whiz and, if you ask for bottled water, packets of dehydrated chicken soup and oatmeal.
Rock recommends that travelers in developing countries follow the same precautions with food on the airplane that they do while dining at their destination:
They should not drink water unless they are sure it is safe, and they should avoid salad greens that may have been washed in contaminated water.
After all, she reasons, the airline and restaurants on the ground use the same food and drink suppliers. "Meal replacement bars" have become common, says Evelyn Tribole, a dietitian and author of Eating on the Run (Human Kinetics, 1991).
meal bar, The name is a bit of a misnomer, she says: "Many barely have 280 calories," not enough to make a satisfying meal.
But if you choose to take along some of the bars, she advises looking for a brand "with at least 10 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber."
This is easier said than done, as she knows. Promoted as a meal bar, the apple-cinnamon variety of a product called Satisfaction, made by Balance Bar, has 280 calories, 12 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber.
Slim-Fast also makes meal replacement bars; its milk chocolate peanut bar has 220 calories and 8 grams of protein but just 2 grams of fiber.
Consider packing some trail mix or a package of dried fruit, Tribole suggests. "It's indestructible. If you sit on it, it's no big deal."