Travel Notes: Airlines offer more healthful food choices

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There's some good news about what you get to eat on commercial airlines: It is getting more healthful.

That's the assessment of Charles Platkin, a professor of nutrition at the City University of New York's Hunter College who has tested and ranked airline foods off and on since 2000. With few exceptions, Mr. Platkin said most airlines now offer at least one healthful meal alternative on their menu.

"It's actually moving in a good direction," he said. "It's been an ebb and flow, but the overall trend is positive."

He gave the top ranking this year to Virgin America, noting that the airline based in California offers low-calorie options such as roasted pear and arugula salad, a "protein plate" with hummus and whole wheat pita bread, plus oatmeal for breakfast. He gave the airline 41/4 stars out of a maximum of five stars.

Among others:

JetBlue Airways received a health score of 31/4 stars. "The individually packaged snacks are portion-controlled, but most lack nutritional value. The beef jerky, at 100 calories, is OK, but it's high in sodium. The Shape Up meal has fiber and, at 496 calories, is the winner."

US Airways earned 23/4 stars. "The airline has replaced several high-calorie individual snacks with lower-calorie versions," he wrote. "While it is moving in the right direction, a few healthy snacks are needed. Many high-calorie meals have also been lowered. For lunch or dinner, the barbecue chicken salad is a great protein-packed, low-calorie choice at 190 calories."

Delta Air Lines earned 23/4 stars. "Delta's individual snack choices aren't very good. For free snacks, the peanuts are the best choice. Among snack boxes, the Travel Treats without the Twizzlers and Oreo cookies will work. For breakfast, your best bet is the yogurt parfait at 290 calories. For lunch/dinner, go for the smoked turkey provolone, which is 550 calories without the mayo."

• Last on the list was Allegiant Air. Mr. Platkin said the Las Vegas airline "made it clear that their foods were not healthy. It shows." The airline's snacks include M&Ms, Oreo Brownies and Pringles chips.

More fees?

Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline recently might assume that air carriers have run out of ideas for new passenger fees.

After all, the world's biggest airlines are expected this year to rake in $36.1 billion from fees for such things as food, drinks, wireless Internet service, roomier seats and checked bags.

But the airline industry is not resting on its money-making laurels.

At a three-day Airline Information conference in San Diego recently, airline representatives met with technology firms, marketing companies and others to discuss ways to maximize airline passenger fees.

For example, an insurance executive speaking during a meeting on fee innovations said passengers will be offered new forms of travel insurance, including policies to pay you if rain ruins your vacation or if an injury keeps you from running an out-of-town endurance race.

The aim is to "send the right offers to the right customers," said Sheila Birchall, business development director at Allianz Global Assistance.

Giving passengers the option to pre-order an onboard premium meal is an idea that KLM Royal Dutch Airlines launched last year. That reduces how much the airline spends on free special meals, such as vegetarian dishes.

"The idea was to give people more choices but also to limit our special meal costs," said Bas 't Hooft, ancillary revenue director for the airline.

But perhaps the hottest topic was how to wring the most out of passenger data collected every time you book a flight.

In the future, you can expect more airlines to offer special package deals based on your past preferences. The offers might include airline tickets bundled with onboard food, drinks and entertainment, all at a discount price.

"How do you look after your customer?" asked Rajiv Aggarwal, vice president of sales and business development for Farelogix Inc., a Miami technology company. "You mine the data."

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