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As of July 1, coach class passengers on US Airways domestic flights of 700 miles or farther (approximately 2 1/2 hours or longer in the air) should be able again to get decent food in-flight -- if they're willing to pay for it.
Under an arrangement with LSG Sky Chefs and Einstein Bros., US Airways is now selling In-Flight Cafe, "restaurant-quality" boxed meals.
The breakfast boxes, which cost $7 each, will be available on qualifying flights of at least 700 miles that are scheduled to depart between 5:30 and 10 a.m. The lunch/dinner boxes, which cost $10 each, will be offered on flights between 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., as well as transcontinental flights that depart between 7:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Once the flight has reached cruising altitude, meal carts will be run up the aisles first, followed by the usual complimentary beverage service of coffee, tea, juices, water and selected soft drinks and spirits for sale. No other food or snacks will be served.
First-class passengers on these longer flights can choose between the boxes or regular meal service, all complimentary.
On flights shorter than 700 miles, coach passengers will be offered only complimentary nonalcoholic beverages, with a small bag of pretzels. Wine, beer and other spirits will be available for purchase.
These changes affect only domestic flights. US Airways will continue to provide its standard complimentary meals to all passengers on its Caribbean and transatlantic flights (including special dietary options). However, as of last Sept. 1, those sitting in Coach Class are required to pay for beer, wine and cocktails.
The same In-Flight Cafe menu offerings will be served systemwide, with the selections changing on 16th of every month.
We had a chance to sample the first round of breakfast, lunch and dinner boxes, and solicited taste-tasting comments from the PG Food section staffers.
The assessment? We were all pleasantly surprised at how good the food was, much more savory than the in-flight meals that have become the butt of jokes of late-night TV shows. Though prepackaged, the muffins were moist and tasty. Salads and sandwiches were fresh, with surprisingly delicate sauces and dressings. The fruit was ripe and juicy.
The breakfast box labeled Blueberry Madness consists of a blueberry and walnut muffin, fresh honeydew and mandarin orange salad, yogurt and granola and a bottle of spring water to sip on until the beverages are served.
The first lunch/dinner choice is a chicken Caesar sandwich, roasted rosemary chicken breast, shredded Asiago cheese and fresh romaine lettuce on a rustic hoagie roll with Caesar sun-dried tomato dressing on the side, along with fresh seasonal fruit and Kettle Classic chips.
The other option is an Einstein Bros. Bistro Chicken Salad, consisting of roasted chicken strips on fresh romaine and spring lettuces, with feta cheese, dried cherries, glazed walnuts and a side of raspberry vinaigrette and Asiago herb flat bread.
Both lunch/dinner boxes also contain a gourmet chocolate chunk cookie and a bottle of spring water.
Beginning Wednesday, the menus will be changed.
There will be two breakfast options, both priced at $7.
The first consists of a wedge of apple crumb cake, fruit salad of cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, red seedless grapes and strawberries, with lemon yogurt and a side of granola cereal. The other choice is prosciutto and brie cheese, served with a honey wheat croissant, cantaloupe, lettuce, red raspberry preserves and strawberry banana yogurt. Both breakfasts include a bottle of water.
Two options will be offered for lunch/dinner, both for $10:
The chipotle chicken salad is composed of romaine and radicchio, Roma tomatoes, corn, onions, red and green peppers and black beans, served with chipotle vinaigrette on the side and corn tortilla strips. The muffaletta sandwich is honey-baked ham on ciabatta bread with black and green olives, fresh lettuce, provolone cheese and Roma tomatoes with a side of ancho chile and lime mayonnaise. It comes with a bag of potato chips and tomato cucumber salad. Both lunch/dinner options will also include a lemon, white chocolate cookie and a bottle of spring water.
In general, the In-Flight Cafe service is still being evaluated and tweaked. The food is prepared and packed fresh at LSG service kitchens, including one in Pittsburgh. Planes will be stocked with a number of meal boxes sufficient to meet expected demand, but that doesn't necessarily mean there will be one for every passenger.
At this point, there's no advance ordering. In-Flight Cafe meals are sold on a cash-only basis on the plane. Sample meals will be on display at boarding gates, and an announcement of the menu will be part of the cabin staff's opening remarks. Meal service for a particular flight is also noted on flight information listed on US Airways Web site (www.usairways.com).
Each box also includes a receipt and satisfaction survey.
Of course, there are drawbacks, other than having to pay for food that was once offered as part of the ticket price.
For example, no provisions are made for passengers connecting on two flights of shorter duration, which means those on tight turnarounds risk serious hunger.
Nor is there any provision on domestic flights for passengers who might have requested any of the alternative meals the carrier formerly offered, including those who follow kosher, vegetarian, low-salt or other dietary regimens.
And of course, since the same In-Flight Cafe meals are being served for a month at a time, they can get boring to anyone who travels frequently.
There are of course other in-flight food options.
You can go hungry. You can bring food from home. While carrying food through security will be a hassle, it is permissible, including drinks. But don't pack anything in metal or aluminum foil, which might set off detectors.
The other option is to buy food at an airport eatery. If you have the time, dining there is probably preferable, but most airside terminal restaurants will pack food to go.
In either case, there's no problem carrying food and drink onto the plane. Unlike sporting or theater venues, US Airways still permits paying customers to bring food from outside.
Of course, if the food you bring on is too good, you may have to share some with your seat mate.