Delta soon will serve up a higher caliber of cuisine

Hungry fliers, Delta Air Lines has heard your growling stomachs.

The Atlanta-based carrier plans to begin selling sandwiches and salads on a handful of transcontinental flights in mid-September. It's the precursor to the main attraction, a pay-per-bite menu designed by celebrity chef Todd English that will start rolling out on long-haul flights in November.

As the airline emerges from bankruptcy, it's reviving other customer service perks. Pillows will return, although only to first-class cabins. So will metal cutlery and glassware.

"What our customers really want is time," said Joanne Smith, senior vice president of in-flight service and global product development. "They want to save time on the ground, and they want an enhanced experience onboard."

Delta also is expanding the number of planes with seat-back entertainment centers, with all flights of more than 2,000 miles (four hours or longer) expected to have those systems by summer 2008, Smith said Monday. And it will start accepting credit cards for food and beverage purchases on many flights.

Delta dropped its 2-year-old airborne food sales program and stopped stocking pillows on many flights in 2005, a few months before filing for bankruptcy.

"It didn't lose money," Smith said of the program. "We didn't have it on enough flights. What's different this time is we are going to be expanding it to about 50 percent."

English's menu hasn't been finalized. Among the items under consideration are a smoked salmon and egg salad croissant and a beet, walnut, manchego cheese and spinach salad. Prices will range from $2 to $10 for meals and premium snacks.

English, who grew up in Sandy Springs, operates 17 restaurants around the United States, including Olives, his flagship in Boston. None are in metro Atlanta.

Chris McGinnis, who edits The Ticket, a newsletter for frequent travelers in Atlanta, is skeptical. Since dropping free meals for coach passengers, airlines have trained travelers to bring what they want to eat onboard or buy it at the airport, where the quality of food offerings has improved.

Onboard sales will appeal to business travelers who don't have time to wait in airport concession lines, McGinnis said. But he doubts enlisting a celebrity chef will make airline chow any more palatable.

"In reality, it's still food served from an airplane galley, and there's not a whole lot Todd English can do about that," he said.

Delta starts its meal sales program on Sept. 13 on West Coast flights from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. English's menu will replace those sandwiches and salads in November.

The food sales program will roll out first to longer flights, and should be available on all flights of at least 750 miles (90 minutes or longer) by spring 2008. The airline also will sell upgraded snacks, such as Dove chocolate bars with almonds, to supplement free snacks.

Delta is not the only U.S. legacy carrier enlisting celebrity chefs to boost its appeal to fliers. United Airlines passengers on long flights can buy sandwiches and salads from a menu designed by Trader Vic's, a Polynesian restaurant, and snack boxes with organic or high-energy treats.

Famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter designed the complimentary menu for United's international flights. Passengers in first-class and business-class seats can choose from items that might grace the menu of an upscale restaurant: roasted mushroom duck tart with seared sea scallops, or a wild mushroom risotto and herb-rubbed chicken breast with caramelized rutabaga and organic kalamata olive-caper sauce.

Delta is also upgrading its complimentary meals for first-class domestic passengers by expanding menus designed by Michelle Bernstein, who currently puts together meals for international business-class passengers. The new menu includes short ribs in a red wine sauce with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and a zucchini/squash medley.