This could be your idea of hell. In a spartan, draughty building at the windward end of the runway at Stansted, half-a-dozen senior travel executives are gathered around a spread of airline meals, laid out in all their plastic finery. As an elderly Cubana DC-10 arrives noisily from Havana, Chris Parker and Philip Ovenden raise their voices a little while they earnestly discuss the relative merits of Shepherd's Pie vis-a-vis Mexican turkey.

Mr Parker is chairman of Unijet, one of Britain's leading tour operators. Mr Ovenden is managing director of its in-house airline, Leisure International. With a little help from some colleagues, they are deciding what you and I are going to eat on our charter flights this summer. And I think we will enjoy the results.

British cuisine may not be the most celebrated in the world, but the food served on our airlines is better than most offer - given the choice between lunch courtesy of most continental scheduled airlines or a British charter carrier, I would choose the charter every time for quality and quantity. To show how seriously they take the business of feeding their army of passengers, Unijet's management had moved en masse from the company headquarters in Sussex to taste the new season's crop of inflight meals.

"We'd love to serve smoked salmon to all our passengers, but the economics of charter operations just don't allow it," says Mr Parker. If you are leaving from Gatwick to Orlando today, you will probably have paid around pounds 240 return for the 4,500-mile flight - the same as the return fare between Glasgow and London. In order to make a living on such modest revenues, tour operators have to watch every element of costs. Most aim to provide something acceptable to the majority of passengers at a cost, per main course, of under pounds 1 - though the accompaniments, labour and uplift costs multiply this four- or five-fold.

The other big constraint, of course, is taste. We charter passengers are a conservative lot, which is why Shepherd's Pie is preferred to the more nutritious Mexican turkey, and why there was a near-mutiny when Dutch sausages were temporarily substituted for British bangers on the breakfast tray. "We're trying to please as many people as we can for the duration of the flight," explains Philip Ovenden between nibbles.

Attention is paid to appearance, though this is necessarily constrained by the serving tray: you get a square meal, in the geometric sense. Space is at a premium on charter flights, as those with long legs will testify. The economic pressure to squeeze in as many paying passengers as possible means dishes must be rectangular to make for easier stacking and serving.

Whichever charter flight you take this summer, your meal may well have had a longer journey than you. The days when everything was freshly prepared by an on-board chef disappeared with the flying boats. On Leisure International, your charter flight main course will have been prepared some days earlier at a catering kitchen in Holland. It was chilled, and shipped over to the departure airport to joins forces with the locally assembled accessories from puddings to plastic plates.

Everything is loaded on board in what Mr Ovenden describes as an operation of military complexity. His next sentence is drowned out by the Cubana DC-10 lifting off noisily on its return trip to Havana, carrying goodness- knows-what delights to feed its passengers. Gastronomically, if not geographically, I would rather be on a Leisure International flight to Helsinki.