Airline food has gotten so bad that Padma Lakshmi, cookbook author and host of Top Chef on Bravo, often heads to the airport with a container full of spinach leaves and leftovers such as grilled chicken, along with a separate container of dressing. Once on the plane, "I put it together and shake it up," she said.
And Nina Zagat, co-founder of the Zagat restaurant survey, travels with her own pepper mill and the fixings for an elegant sandwich. "I usually bring the best smoked salmon I can find and very thinly sliced whole-grain bread, and I put that together on the flight," she said.
For travelers who don't want to make their own meals, a bunch of new dining choices at America's airports now offer an alternative to the standard fare of dried-out turkey sandwiches or unappetizing snack boxes that the airlines sell on most domestic flights.
With hot meals in coach virtually gone, airport terminals are filling the void (and tapping a captive market) by presenting better and healthier food choices, often with takeout services.
Instead of just outlets of McDonald's, Panda Express and other fast-food standards, airports are offering organic salads, local barbecue chicken and even small bottles of chilled wine with screw tops that passengers can bring onboard (although Federal Aviation Administration rules technically forbid the consumption of alcohol not served by the airline).
Some of the new takeout options are decidedly upscale. At Terminal 2 at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, the specialty grocer Balducci's opened a 700-square-foot shop in concert with Delta last spring, serving tuna nicoise salads and sandwiches made from chipotle lime-marinated grilled chicken.
Vino Volo, a wine bar and lounge that opened in 2005 at Washington Dulles International Airport, has been rapidly expanding to other airports, including BWI Marshall Airport in Linthicum, allowing coach passengers to cobble together meals that would make business-class passengers envious. On its menu: small plates such as duck confit or smoked salmon rolls (about $8 to $11).
Airports are brimming with new food purveyors, but how do you find them?
One place to look is side step.com, which introduced an Airport Guides feature this month with detailed restaurant information for more than 160 airports. Also, farecast.com has an Airport Survival blog that offers food and drink recommendations for some of the busiest U.S. airports.
In some ways, airport terminals are playing catch-up with low-cost carriers: Since the carriers never offered full meals onboard, many had turned the pre-boarding area into a mini-food court.
The new Southwest terminal at BWI has a Silver Diner, the first airport location for the Maryland-based chain. The 150-seat Silver Diner serves classic American fare such as three-egg omelets, burger baskets and hand-dipped malts. It also offers a takeout case with pre-made sandwiches and salads, as well as a hot-pressed sandwich counter for customers with a little more time.
But the main draw, at least for harried and hungry travelers, is a self-serve computer kiosk that relays the order directly to the kitchen, so all you have to do is swipe your credit card and pick up the order. And soon you won't even have to pick it up yourself. Silver Diner plans to install kiosks at departing gates and begin delivering orders to passengers, perhaps as they're in line to board.
Just because you can bring your own first-class meal into coach doesn't mean you should ignore other rules of etiquette. "Be mindful that you'll be in a confined area and not everyone might like the smell of your particular dish," said Marco Lopez, who heads up Farecast's Airport Survival blog.
And, of course, not all food is conducive to carry-on. Heavily dressed sandwiches, like tuna with mayonnaise, generally don't hold up well. And if you get sushi, don't wait until the end of a long flight to eat it.
Some airlines, perhaps realizing they may have gone too far in stripping their coach cabins of flavor or nourishment, are bringing back more food options. American is testing new items such as $5 smoked turkey sandwiches, $3 Fuze green tea and $10 fruit-and-cheese plates on certain routes.
Delta has hired celebrity chef Todd English to create onboard dishes for purchase such as Nutella, grape jelly and banana slices on a ciabatta roll ($4) and a grilled Mediterranean shrimp salad ($9). The meals were rolled out this month on nearly all of the longer domestic flights.
Whether the new airline menu works remains to be seen. How the meals taste will hinge on preparation, both before and after takeoff, English said. "They have to make sure they do it well," he said (he signed only a one-year contract with Delta), "or I'm out."