Airline fare rarely pushes the boundaries of gastronomic excellence, but when it comes to satisfying the rumbling tums of passengers, some carriers really make a meal of it. How's this for an in-flight brunch menu: 'speciality smoothie' of chilled fresh fruits and juices; appetiser of centre-cut salmon with Oscietra caviar; entree of marinated king prawn nicoise, fresh quails eggs and shaved truffles, or goats' cheese, spinach and pine-nut strudel with wilted rocket and red pepper coulis; for dessert, pistachio brulee, followed by a cheeseboard of Fountain Gold, Celtic Promise and Partridges Blue; all accompanied by wines, chosen by Jancis Robinson MW, from the 'classic regions' of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne? It's true, those selections are from no ordinary airborne chow-hour; they formed part of a menu available exclusively in the fastest restaurant that ever flew, entry to which always bestowed a certain cachet. Each dish and tipple was recently served on British Airways' Concorde, now sadly defunct as both a travel icon and first-class eatery. A few years ago, Ansett Australia had the laudable idea of stationing 'air chefs' in its business and economy classes. The chef at the front end of the aircraft put together meals from pre-cooked ingredients on the spot; the chef at the back checked the food before loading and ensured courses were served separately. Sadly, Ansett, like Concorde, is no more, so perhaps that tells you something. But given the right clientele in the appropriate surroundings, food, glorious food can still be found moving at 800km/h at 10,000 metres: business-class meals served by the likes of Cathay Pacific, Qantas and British Airways on Hong Kong routes are invariably smartly presented, nutritious, filling and accompanied by wines at which John Arlott would not have sniffed. And even at the back of the bus, some airlines do make an effort: untold customer-service brownie points are up for grabs, and a decent meal on a long flight can buy years of passenger goodwill. Deep and lasting has proved my appreciation of thoroughly enjoyable dinners served on real crockery by Emirates and Lauda Air. Provision of special meals (vegetarian, kosher, gluten-free) earns airlines more credits, particularly when they remember to load them. And early serving of the same means recipients can beat the post-feast stampede for the restrooms. Nevertheless, perhaps today's savvy flyers hanker yet for the 'golden age' of passenger flight, dreamily imagining themselves cruising low over the Sahara within the elegant confines of a Handley Page HP42, picnicking on canapes from wicker chairs strewn about an unpressurised cabin. Perhaps they wouldn't if they knew those stylish 1930s pioneers were given packs of ham sandwiches and the champagne they were served was there simply to banish any fear of flying. We've all had a whinge about how bad an in-flight meal has been and sworn we'll never fly the offending airline again. We've all been served the bread roll with optional hammer and chisel on the side, while one or two passengers have even found their dinners presented with off-menu extras such as a whistling tree frog (Qantas) and a lizard (Jet Airways of India). And believe me when I tell you that consumption of a carton of asparagus juice can paint bodily by-products in psychedelic colours for 24 hours. But how bad are airline meals, really? Websites lambasting carriers' failure to act in our best intestinal interests abound. And shedding a tear for the public faces of a multibillion-dollar industry that always puts passengers last is about as likely as the introduction of smoke hoods. Airlines, however, operate on low profit margins and competition is fierce. When it comes to generating savings, in-flight catering, involving large volumes of foodstuffs and significant costs, always advertises itself as a likely well-spring of frugality. As part of its cost-cutting efforts, Continental Airlines, which lost US$363 million last year, recently simplified the embossing on napkins it hands out with in-flight meals. The decision will save only $132,000 a year, so how desperate can that be? Nevertheless, Continental, to its credit, refuses to cut back on food served. Even on domestic flights, passengers continue to receive meals without extra charge, making Continental the last major American airline to offer such a service. (The standard of nose bags remains variable, however, featuring, according to one recent passenger, 'tiny packets of cereal', dished out with a dour, 'That's it buddy,' when the rest of the meal's whereabouts were inquired after, and 'horrible omelettes'.) Yet for every yelping traveller who complains that the coffee is cold, the mashed potato is soggy, the carrots are like bullets and the steak is burly enough to break teeth, there appears a testimonial like this: 'Air Canada has awesome meals - best airline food. They truly care what they serve their customers. Not one bad meal in four years.' Or this: 'Singapore Airlines meals are hot, very well presented and served with choice wines.' Or this: 'I really love the food on PIA. As airline meals go, the food was really, really tasty and the portions were really large.' Perhaps the 'I know my rights' approach of the stroppy modern flyer can be credited with some guarantee of quality in airline provender; it has done little, however, for complaints about the meagreness of portions. Carriers would probably plead take-off weight (of the aircraft rather than certain passengers) and storage limitations in their defence, but there's no chance of a 'supersize me' sprouting from a diet of airline food. Maybe that means cooked, cooled, boxed, wrapped and reheated silage is good for you. Thankfully, the airborne watchdogs at www.skytraxsurveys.com and www.luchtzak.be continue to growl on our behalf at dodgy catering, encouraging legions of passengers to expose the overcooked, rubbery, stale, stodgy or runny truth with their digital cameras. But it all seems a pitiably long way from the days when Hong Kong artist Dong Kingman was painting watercolours for the front of Pan Am menus. Some bottom-dollar budget airlines still encourage us to bring our own sandwiches or buy onboard snacks; others believe the way to a passenger's wallet is through his stomach. Despite Ansett's demise, Air New Zealand recently enlisted feted Los Angeles chef Govind Armstrong as menu consultant, his influence filtering down as far as premium economy class. Kitchen wizard Paisarn Cheewinsiriwat of Thai spa resort Chiva-Som has seen British Airways add his wholesome creations to its First Class fare. As with any other branch of consumerism (and why should air travel be any different?), broadly, you get what you pay for. Just remember to smile at the cabin-crew member who serves you, however abominable the offerings may appear: stewardesses tell tales of how they like to avenge themselves at mealtimes on passengers who have been particularly rude. Repeatable incidents involve the wiping of teabags around toilet bowls before presenting those welcome after-dinner cuppas.