Bye Bye Friendly Skies

It’s no secret that airline travel is no fun these days. Charges for baggage, no food (as opposed to lousy food), and pillows and blankets a seeming luxury. We can’t even get peanuts anymore because airlines say they are worried about peanut allergies.

Just how cheesy (the Velveeta kind, not the Camembert kind) things have gotten hit home on a recent trip to Alaska. (More on the trip in future posts.) Anyway, using mileage, my wife and I managed to upgrade to first-class tickets on a nonstop US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Anchorage. (Usually, business class is more than sufficient but this flight had none.)

In the old days (before 9/11) first-class seats meant access to the airline’s lounge with free beverages, snacks, sometimes even massage chairs. Now only international flight tickets get you in the door. Fortunately, we had a coupon that allowed us entry. The US Airways Envoy lounge was big and airy and well maintained. We got free Wi-Fi too.

The receptionist told us that we could go in and out at will, but that we were not to bring in any food from outside. Why would anyone do that in the first class lounge, I thought? Because the food in the lounge consisted of cheap party snack mix, pretzels, potato chips and apples. And because, according to the receptionist,  “sandwiches could be purchased at the bar along with alcoholic beverages.”

We staved off hunger with snack mix, Diet Coke and coffee until we boarded the plane. We relaxed in our seats, prepared for an enjoyable seven-hour flight. Soon our stewardess asked what we wanted to drink before dinner. I asked what kind of wine she had. Her reply: “Cabernet and Chardonnay.”  (Well, I guess it was better than “Red and White.”) She also volunteered that both were from California.

Knowing full well that the Cab and Chard would be bottom rung brands with this kind of service, I didn’t bother to ask the names of the producers. “ I’ll have the Cabernet,” I said, making no effort to hide my contempt.

The wine came a few minutes later—in a plastic cup, filled about two thirds high (don’t forget, this was first class!) as if it were Sprite. Later, on my way to the lavatory, I saw the bottle: Cachuma Vineyards, a name I’d never heard of. I was unable to find anything about the winery when I returned home, though I assume it’s in the Santa Barbara area where Lake Cachuma is located.

Dinner wasn’t half bad, about what one would expect at an Applebee’s: penne pasta in a creamy cheese sauce with peas; spinach salad and apple crisp with vanilla ice cream.

Some of you may be wondering why I’m so surprised that airline food is mediocre. Well, I wouldn’t be if I were sitting in coach. But first class?

When I was food editor at the San Jose Mercury News, I wrote a column about airline food, suggesting that instead of trying to duplicate hot meals at 30,000 feet, airlines keep it simple with things like cheese, pate, salami, bread and condiments such as olives. And above all, good coffee. Alas, it was never to be. Airlines did simplify food service, but for the most part that meant eliminating food altogether.

Back then I thought that airlines should just reduce fares and let us bring on our own food, which my wife and I used to do on our return flights from Europe, where we loaded up on great bread, cheese and wine at places like Ka De We in Berlin or Fauchon in Paris, before heading for the airport.

You can still do that with food, but not wine. That is, unless you find a bunch of three-ounce bottles and decant your wine into them before boarding the plane.  Now there’s a thought.

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