LOVE IT OR HATE IT, we're fascinated by the food we're served on airplanes. Log on to AirlineMeals.net and there is a catalogue of 18,000 photographs taken by passengers of their in-flight meals. Each one is meticulously documented, reviewed and given a mark out of 10. On February 2 last year, for example, Adrian flew first class on Cathay Pacific Airways from Taiwan to Hong Kong. For dinner he was offered a starter of a seared king prawn with smoked salmon and for the main course a choice of abalone dainties coated with crab roe or grilled beef fillet with mixed mushrooms and a red wine sauce. Accompanying the mains were roasted new-potato wedges or fried rice chiu-chow style and a selection of western or oriental vegetables. For dessert he had warm chocolate rice pudding with vanilla sauce. He drank Deutz Cuvee William 1996. 'I had the abalone entree,' Adrian writes, 'which consists of two crepes filled with minced pork and chopped abalone topped with a light sauce. It was very delicious and a perfect evening entree. I could not resist the dessert, which was just decadent and sumptuous.' He gave the meal 9.5 out of 10. Charles Grossrieder, manager of catering services on Cathay Pacific, has an idea why we're so obsessed with airline food. 'Passengers are confined in an environment they can't move in,' he says. 'So they look at food more as entertainment. In an aircraft it's always a surprise. It's not really your choice.' The arrival of low-cost airlines and September 11 meant the major carriers had to bend over backwards to entice people back into the skies. While the cheaper airlines chose not to serve any food at all and concentrated on making their fares as low as possible, the big airlines decided to go the other way, and do their utmost to make first and business class a more luxurious experience. So once they had sent the limousine to pick you up, checked you in via the fast track and installed you in your large, comfortable seat, all that remained was to serve excellent food. Nearly all the major carriers have employed famous chefs and food experts to give 'exclusivity' to their catering. British Airways has a 'culinary council' of eight including Mark Edwards, head chef at Nobu, London, Claire Clark, chef patissier at the French Laundry, California, and Paisarn Cheewinsiriwat of Chiva-Som spa in Thailand. Singapore Airlines has a panel of nine chefs, through which it also runs its Book the Cook service: before boarding, passengers in first class can order a meal, from lobster thermidor to noodle soup, created by the chef of their choice. They include the three-Michelin starred French chef Georges Blanc, Britain's Gordon Ramsay and the 'King of Abalone', Yeung Koon-yat of Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific, winner of the SCMP/Harper's Bazaar StyleAwards Airline of the Year for the second year running, has been inspired by Hong Kong's great restaurants. Grossrieder says: 'Chinese passenger demographics have soared. So we do do something for the Chinese community. But we haven't forgotten the others. We had an American food promotion last year on American routes serving such dishes as lobster and Caesar salad, and we're looking at an Indian promotion on Indian routes.' Cathay's Chinese menus seem ambitious. Examples in previous years have been Yung Kee's signature roast goose, and prawns with snow fungus and chrysanthemum in a clear broth as cooked at The Peninsula's Spring Moon restaurant. Of course, says Grossrieder, logistics dictate they be adapted. 'Dishes must be suitable to the environment and garlic and chilli has to be kept to a level that won't flavour the whole aircraft. By experience, we avoid dishes that only some will like. That is why you never see liver on an aircraft,' says Grossrieder. 'You have to serve what 90 per cent of the passengers on the aircraft will enjoy.' While Cathay serves China's finest dishes, Virgin Atlantic Airways is giving its Upper Class (the equivalent to other airlines' business class) passengers a taste of the best of British. The theme was launched in December with a two-week festive menu; seasonal dishes using local ingredients from regional suppliers will be introduced throughout the year. Dishes will include broccoli and stilton soup, fish pie and beef hotpot. This might be followed by rhubarb trifle or Bramley apple crumble with custard. Recognising that passengers are increasingly health-conscious, British Airways has collaborated with Chiva-Som spa in Thailand. Examples of meals are pan-fried snapper in green curry sauce with brown rice and steamed vegetables or a baked ricotta parcel with enoki mushrooms and red pepper coulis. Passengers in first class can also order the 'catch of the day', a selection of wild fish from Loch Fyne Fisheries in Scotland. In an attempt to make the dining experience as little like being on an aeroplane as possible, Singapore Airline's first- and business-class passengers eat off fine-bone china and linen from Givenchy. Travellers on the new B777-300ER aircraft are promised a dining experience 'similar to that of an exclusive restaurant'. On Cathay Pacific's new aircraft, due to be launched at the end of next month, first class will have individual cabins in which passengers can sit and dine opposite each other, while in Virgin Upper Class each seat comes with a large table that needn't be stowed and an ottoman that passengers can use to share a drink or a meal with a companion. Eating what you want (within reason) when you want it is a luxury that has become standard in the first- and business-class sections of most major carriers. Virgin's Upper Class Freedom menu has more than 30 choices, allowing passengers to order anything from a three-course meal just after take-off to a bacon sandwich at 3am. On British Airways, passengers in business class can help themselves to snacks between meals from a specially designed galley. However hard the airlines might try though, dining at 10,000 metres can't replace the pleasures of eating in a top-class restaurant on terra firma. British Airways may have found a solution by avoiding it altogether on some routes. First- and business-class passengers flying on short overnight services are invited to dine in the departures lounge before boarding. Once airborne, they enjoy a nightcap and then, just before landing, 'breakfast in bed'. Perhaps this attention to the simpler pleasures makes all the difference. Cathay Pacific ('It's the little things that move you' is its current tag line) was one of the first airlines to put rice cookers, skillets and toasters into its first-class galley. And for all the elaborate meals on offer, it is probably something as simple as a bowl of fluffy rice, a piece of toast or a decent cup of coffee that can turn an average flight into memorable one.