In-flight food was once a dull affair, but airline feeding habits are more seasoned now, says Sarah Edghill
If you asked for a vegetarian meal on an aircraft 10 years ago, the crew would look at you as if you had volunteered to sky-dive. Airlines traditionally fed passengers dry chicken and soggy vegetables, and meals were served on flimsy trays with plastic cutlery. If you wanted anything different, tough.

Those days are long gone. Although passengers don't choose airlines solely because of food quality, the industry realises that decent meals increase people's enjoyment of a flight.

In first and business class, airline meals are truly splendid things. Delicacies like lobster, smoked duck and wild salmon grace expensive crockery, while the best wines are poured into cut-crystal glasses. It's more of a scrum back in economy, but even there, passengers usually have a choice of main meal. Some airlines, such as Virgin, offer three choices including a vegetarian option. And all are putting much more thought into the nutritional content.

"The attitude to food has changed dramatically," says Judith Wilcox, general manager of in-flight services for Virgin Atlantic, which serves three million meals a year. "People are more familiar with exotic products. They are also more aware of health issues. Many have special dietary preferences."

British Airways works with a senior lecturer in nutrition from Kings College, who validates all the airline's meals and works on the content of special menus. The 72 million meals served each year by United Airlines are accompanied by a nutritional fact card, and must meet specific guidelines regulating calories, cholesterol and sodium.

Most airlines use contract catering companies based at destination airports. Orders for meals are placed 18 to 24 hours before a flight. (Some major airlines have their own kitchens at native airports; British Airways has an extensive catering department at Heathrow dealing with 25,000 meals a day for inter-continental flights.) Your meal will often have been prepared at least 24 hours earlier - longer if a flight is delayed. Once cooked, meals are divided among plastic trays; cooling is done in blast- chillers to stop bacteria multiplying. Trays are stored in insulated food carts before being taken to the plane. Once on board, correct storage is vital - until they're served, cold dishes and desserts must be kept cold (below 5oC). Hot dishes must be reheated for at least two minutes at 70oC before being wheeled down the aisle.

There are also some basic corporeal limitations. "Cabin pressure is known to diminish taste buds, so food has to be strongly flavoured," says Judith Wilcox. Not all traditional flavourings are suitable. Too much salt dehydrates, and too much garlic could be unpleasant for those on long-haul flights. Airlines steer clear of cabbage because of the lingering smell, and foods like baked beans are renowned for playing havoc with the digestive system. Sitting next to someone with severe wind for nine hours is no joke. "When we first introduced healthier alternatives, we included lots of pulses, but found they also needed to be used very carefully," says Kurt Hafner, head of culinary concept at BA.

In response to customer demand, scheduled airlines are also heading away from heavy puddings and excess alcohol, offering more fruit and foods that are easily digested. Many have become influenced by Mediterranean styles, using olive oil instead of animal fats in cooking and offering more pasta and vegetable-based dishes. Indian and oriental dishes are also increasingly popular. "They travel well," says Wilcox.

Seasoned travellers often order a special meal before flying; it ensures you get served before everyone else. Virgin has 12 set meals, but, given notice, will cook almost anything requested for religious or dietary reasons. Singapore Airlines offers 15 special menus, BA has 22, and United 25, including low-sodium, low-cholesterol, kosher, Hindu and diabetic.

Airlines only spend about 4 per cent of revenue on food. While they may be willing to fork out up to pounds 100 per head for first-class passengers, the budget for economy is much less. None are prepared to give figures. "Passengers might be piqued to learn how little of the cost of their fare goes on meals," admits one spokesman.

Budget also restricts choice on charter flights, where airlines operate on tighter overheads. Menus here tend to be basic, with no slant towards healthy eating. Apparently, this is what customers want. "Passengers tell us they don't want anything too healthy," says Amanda Spencer of Britannia Airways, which serves 230,000 meals a week during summer. "They are going on holiday. They'd have a cooked breakfast instead of muesli, and a proper pudding rather than fruit salad."

Because of this, Britannia and other charter airlines have never worried too much about, say, fat content. Spencer tells an illuminating tale: "We have tried using different spreads, but we put butter back on the meal trays in 1992 because passengers told us they weren't worried about the health aspects. They just wanted the real thing."