Earl Furfine wants to take the institution of the in-flight meal to new heights. The entrepreneur's latest venture, Carry-on Cuisine, is an Internet-based system that lets air travelers order from airport restaurants as they book their flights. The cooked-to-order meal is ready for pickup as the flight is boarding. Travelers "don't have to eat that stuff they serve on the plane," Furfine says. Call it thinking outside the tray. Furfine's operation is one of several ventures that have started testing ways to bring back passengers' appetites and bring in some extra cash. Even the airlines themselves have gotten the message that travelers are so tired of eating mystery meat that some are even willing to pay. Furfine, 40, knows more than he'd care to about airplane food. A triathlete with a background in consulting and software development, he watched a ticket messaging business he had developed fail after Sept. 11, 2001, when airlines cut costs. The Bethesda resident found part-time consulting work in Atlanta, and on flights back and forth daydreamed about alternatives to the fare he was served on board. "I was eating all this bad food and wondering why someone didn't come up with a better idea," he said. It's Furfine's software and messaging expertise that will become the link between passengers and restaurants by the end of the year, if all goes well. Furfine already has a deal in place with Sabre, a travel marketing company affiliated with nearly half of all North American travel agents. That means that anyone booking a flight through a Sabre-connected travel agent will be able to have the agent book a Carry-on Cuisine meal, too. Passengers will also be able to link to Furfine's site through Travelocity.com, a Sabre-run online travel planning service. On a flight home from Paris a few years ago, a similar idea struck West Coast caterers Richard Katz and Alan Levin. "We'd bought all this great food from the markets," Katz recalls. Unwrapping their Parisian picnic on the plane, he says, "we just got an unbelievable reaction from the other passengers." It turned out Katz and Levin weren't the only frequent fliers yearning for cuisine that was haute in more ways than one. With encouragement from friends and fellow passengers, the two launched SkyMeals LLC, a catering service in Santa Monica, Calif., that delivers custom-prepared food packaged in lightweight, refrigerated containers to passengers preparing to fly. SkyMeals' menu includes items such as flash-seared ahi tuna and a quail egg salad. Prices run from about $8 to $30 a meal. As new ventures, both SkyMeals (www.skymeals.com) and Carry-on Cuisine (www.carryoncuisine.com) currently serve limited markets. SkyMeals, which made its debut last summer, is available only in the Los Angeles-Orange County area, although Katz says it plans to expand to other markets. Carry-on Cuisine has just completed a trial run at Wash- ington's Reagan National Air-port, where it teamed up with TGIFriday's to test the service. Friday's won't be participating, but Furfine is negotiating with airports, restaurants and a major airline for future partnerships. The airlines and their associates, the in-flight caterers, are also hopping aboard the trend. America West, Northwest and Delta have been testing services that sell catered and brand-name foods. LSG Sky Chefs, the largest in-flight caterer worldwide, has been testing its In-Flight Cafe program, where passengers can opt to buy a premade meal on the plane. "The concept that's being studied here is really not traditional airline food," said North-west Airlines spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch. Delta Airlines is testing a similar program through Gate Gourmet, the second-largest in-flight catering company.