Meals provided on aeroplanes have often had to be regarded with suspicion. Now the industry is trying a new approach. Kate Simon gets her appetite back

Airline food, like estate agent, is a phrase guaranteed to elicit a groan. Yet, an £11bn industry is hard at work trying to figure out what will tickle our tastebuds. And airlines are not just interested in what we will consume, they also want to find out how we like to eat when we're in the air.

Airline food, like estate agent, is a phrase guaranteed to elicit a groan. Yet, an £11bn industry is hard at work trying to figure out what will tickle our tastebuds. And airlines are not just interested in what we will consume, they also want to find out how we like to eat when we're in the air.

British Airways took the bold step of abolishing in-flight meals in business and first class on selected overnight flights last year, inviting passengers on its Sleeper service to dine in the premium lounges before flying. And in October it launched Supper at JFK, revamping menus at the New York hub to feature a different guest dish each month by one of the five Michelin-starred chefs who sit on BA's Culinary Council, the airline's forum on food and drink. Only snacks and breakfast are now available on these flights.

"We wanted to give passengers the chance to eat before they fly so that they could sleep for longer," explains David Stockton, BA manager of food and beverage development. "Since we introduced the Sleeper service, the number of passengers eating in the business lounge at JFK has increased from 175 to up to 350 per night and from 35 to 75 a night in first."

Stockton would like to attribute some of that increase to the involvement of the celebrity chefs - among them Michel Roux of The Waterside Inn and Richard Corrigan of The Lindsay House. But he acknowledges that a desire to maximise sleeping time on BA's flatbeds is the main reason passengers are choosing to eat before they board.

Identifying the effect of new trends like the flatbeds, and the changing desires of passengers is as important a challenge for Stockton's team as striving to serve quality food. The involvement of the celebrity chefs with the menu, also available at New York's Newark airport and due to go live in Washington, adds a touch of glamour for a clientele used to fine dining. And the idea has been enhanced at JFK where the featured chef turns up to put on some culinary theatre for a couple of nights each month in the business-class lounge.

So far none of BA's main transatlantic competitors - Virgin Atlantic, United Airlines or American Airlines - has been tempted to pick up the gauntlet. All have retained meals for premium passengers, both on board and in the lounges.

Changes are also taking place at the back of the plane. In November, Alpha Flight Services and tour operator MyTravel redesigned on-board meals on charter flights in an attempt to address the age-old problem of space and comfort - with a keen eye on cost efficiencies and potential extra capacity for more lucrative retail and bar stock.

Called the Blue Sky Service, meal trays have been replaced by a "roll mat", which unfolds to reveal cold items such as cheese, biscuits and desserts and then doubles as a tablecloth. A hot dish is still served but, like the roll mat, it is disposable. So, once you've finished your meal, you can clear away the detritus into a "tidy bag" and hang it on the back of the seat in front for collection.

Kevin Abbott, chief executive of Alpha Airports Group, believes both the airline and its passengers benefit. "It uses fashionable disposable equipment, reminiscent of popular high-street cafés and sandwich chains. At the same time, it is significantly cost beneficial to airlines," he says.

Ben Matthews of industry paper Caterer & Hotelkeeper agrees that this move to snack-style food will be popular. "Alpha and MyTravel have introduced this concept because of the grab and go culture," he says, explaining that Prêt à Manger is the airlines' preferred model. "People don't like the whole image of airline food: the cellophane lid that you peel off; you're cramped; you're sitting; you can't move. Once you've finished your meal it's inconvenient, you're reliant on the hostesses to clear it away, so you don't have any autonomy as a passenger."

With all this attention to detail, is the food itself getting any better? BA's Stockton thinks so. "It's not the butt of all jokes anymore. It no longer needs to just look pretty, it has to taste good, too."

The procedure that gets it to our laps is certainly a complex one. The BA team, for example, has extensive discussions and tastings with the chefs, its celebrity wine consultant, Jancis Robinson, and the contracted companies who design the menus and provide and par-cook the food. Foods and wines have to be assessed for their ability to fly, and the negative effects of dry, pressurised cabins, which dull our tastebuds by up to 30 per cent, have to be overcome. And through a regimented cook-chill process, the aim is to get cold food to our laps within 24 hours of being produced, 48 hours for hot meals.

But Egon Ronay, the food critic, believes the airlines have a long way to go. He has been campaigning for improved airline food for many years. In 1998 he and a team of inspectors went incognito to test the meals on a number of transatlantic airlines, only to be sorely disappointed with the findings. Has anything changed?

"In the few times I have flown since, I have experienced a very slight improvement," says Ronay. "There are signs that at long last they are coming up with more reasonably thought-out snack food - on a two to three-hour flight there is no need for a substantial meal. And some of the quality has been better. A little bit of fresh thinking also reflects on the quality.

"Serving handily packed sandwich-style food instead of bending over backwards to have a meat-and-two-veg type meal is a good idea on shorter flights. But I can't understand why it is necessary to serve food of any kind on a flight. It would be far better if you could buy whatever you like, but in carefully thought out packaging, at the departure lounge. Then you can make your choice: you're not saddled with something you don't want, on the other hand, if you're hungry you can pick up some food. That could work for short and long haul." Food for thought, indeed.