DALLAS – On a recent weekday afternoon, about a dozen American Airlines employees gathered in a backroom at a Ruth's Chris Steak House in Uptown to taste their way through an array of champagnes, whites and reds in search of wines worthy of being served at 35,000 feet in the air.
Just like with food, the dry, pressurized cabin of a modern airliner has a warping effect on the palate, leading American's wine experts to favor bold, expressive vintages that epitomize what people expect when they order a merlot or sauvignon blanc.
"The wine tastes different, even though nothing happens to the wine itself ... as you sit in the plane longer, your palate begins to deceive you," said Ken Chase, a wine consultant for Fort Worth-based American.
The wines chosen at Ruth's Chris will make their way on board flights starting next year, where they'll be served alongside new gourmet dishes created by four chefs, including Julian Barsotti of Dallas, to elevate the in-flight dining experience.
Gone are the rubbery chicken and dry mashed potatoes of yesteryear. In their place are dishes like saffron orzo salad, coconut curry, peppercorn crusted tenderloin and melon manchego carpaccio.
Despite being the butt of jokes since the early 1960s, the in-flight meal is serious business for U.S. airlines and an increasingly major front in the battle for the high-spending customers who sit in first and business class.
At American, the most frequent fliers account for about 13 percent of total passengers, but provide about half of the airline's revenue in a given year. After waves of bankruptcy and consolidation, the three remaining legacy U.S. carriers offer essentially the same product – a seat on a plane – to mostly the same places, heightening the importance of the in-flight experience as a competitive differentiator.
Airlines have responded to this shift by investing in all aspects of their product – from improved airport lounges, faster in-flight Wi-Fi, more entertainment options and lie-flat business class seats – with premium meals emerging as a crowd-pleasing way to make a flight a bit more enjoyable.
"It's a big part of the journey and the experience. Especially on international flights, our customers spend a significant amount of time with us," said Fern Fernandez, American's vice president of global marketing. "We bring some of these great chefs that are either up and coming or have established themselves to be unique ... Our end goal is not necessarily for them to design one menu but to bring different elements of what they're really great at, whether it's a starter or a main plate, and to start infusing that throughout the global network."
In-flight meals trace their history back to sandwiches served to airmen during World War I, according to historian Richard Foss, but didn't reach peak luxury until the middle of the 20th century.
"The standard of service in all aircraft after World War II was more like what we would think of as first class service now. Flying was still an elite thing and elites wanted the kinds of foods they knew and liked," said Foss, author of "Food In The Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies."
He recalled a time when Pan American World Airways roasted beef aboard intercontinental flights.
Things began to change after the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, thrusting existing carriers into a new world where they were forced to compete on price as much as service.
As airlines fought to maintain profitability in this new age, meal budgets were one of the early casualties, culminating in the possibly apocryphal tale of American's CEO Robert Crandall ordering the removal of a single olive from salads in 1987 in order to save tens of thousands of dollars.
While the decline in service was felt especially hard in coach, Foss said meals in premium cabins didn't suffer as much because of the high margins the more expensive fares provided to airlines.
As far back as 1988, American was employing what it called its "Chefs Conclave" to help design its menus.
Today, that expertise has taken on the form of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Joël Robuchon, who have helped create menus for Singapore Airlines and Air France, as well as up-and-coming regional chefs like Barsotti and Nashville's Maneet Chauhan, who help bring local flair to the process.
New technologies have made the flash-freezing and reheating process employed by airlines less ruinous to food, preserving textures and enabling new food options that would have been impossible with older equipment.
Newer menus have also drawn on other culinary trends by incorporating organic and locally-sourced ingredients where possible. Nik Loukas, who runs the airline food review website Inflight Feed, recalls a recent trip on Delta Air Lines from Seattle that featured ingredients from the city's famed Pike Place Fish Market.
"If I asked you what was your most memorable airline meal, you could probably go back five or 10 years and say to me 'I was on this flight. I was going on a holiday. I was with my wife, partner, children whatever and I had this great steak. But if I asked you what you had for lunch last Tuesday, you probably wouldn't' be able to tell me," Loukas said. "I think airlines are starting to understand they're playing a role in creating that memory."
Loukas, who has sampled meals from airlines across the globe, said U.S. airlines have made significant strides in catching up with the quality of meals served on many international airlines, but there's still room for improvement, especially when it comes to coach meals.
"I think it's still kind of unacceptable to jump on a flight for five hours to do a transcontinental in the U.S. to not have decent food," Loukas said. "What they don't understand is today's economy traveler is tomorrow's business or first class traveler."
For those in the back of the plane, the renewed focus on in-flight food has been largely limited to the return of free snacks.
Airlines have looked to offer slightly higher-end products. Earlier this year, United introduced its stroopwafel, a Dutch, caramel-filled treat. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines partnered with Community Coffee to offer a better cup of in-flight joe.
Better economy meals could be on the horizon – at an additional cost – as foreign airlines experiment with options to pre-order food while booking a ticket that is then served during the flight. Loukas said there are even mobile apps in the works that would allow passengers to order food from an airport restaurant that would then be loaded onto the plane, reheated and served during the flight.
"I think in the last 18 months U.S. based passengers have seen an increase in the quality and quantity of offerings, the collaborations with special chefs and brands," Loukas said. "I think that's only going to get better in the next two to five years."