On a recent weekday afternoon, about a dozen American Airlines employees gathered in a backroom at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Dallas to taste their way through an array of Champagnes, whites and reds, in search of wines worthy of being served at 35,000 feet.

The dry, pressurized cabin of airliners has a warping effect on the palate, leading American’s wine experts to favor bold, expressive vintages for in-flight imbibing.

“The wine tastes different, even though nothing happens to the wine itself. As you sit in the plane longer, your palate begins to deceive you,” said Ken Chase, a wine consultant for American.

The wines chosen at the steakhouse tasting will make their way on board flights starting next year, where they’ll be served alongside new gourmet dishes created by chefs Maneet Chauhan, Sam Choy, Julian Barsotti and Mark Sargeant for an elevated dining experience. Well, for first-class and business-class customers, that is.

Gone are the rubbery chicken and dry mashed potatoes of yesteryear. In their place are peppercorn crusted tenderloin, saffron orzo salad, coconut curry, and melon manchego carpaccio.

BATTLE FOR HIGH-SPENDING CUSTOMERS

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Despite being the butt of jokes since the early 1960s, the in-flight meal is serious business for U.S. airlines and an increasingly major front in the battle for the high-spending customers who sit in first and business class.

At American, the most frequent fliers account for about 13 percent of total passengers, but provide about half of the airline’s revenue in a given year. After waves of bankruptcy and consolidation, the three remaining legacy U.S. carriers offer essentially the same product — a seat on a plane — to mostly the same places, at pretty much the same price.

This heightens the importance of the in-flight experience as a competitive differentiator.

So airlines have invested in improved airport lounges, faster in-flight Wi-Fi, yet more entertainment options and lie-flat business-class seats. Premium meals have emerged as another way to make a flight a bit more enjoyable.

In-flight meals trace their history back to sandwiches served to airmen during World War I, according to historian Richard Foss, but didn’t reach peak luxury until the middle of the 20th century.

“The standard of service in all aircraft after World War II was more like what we would think of as first-class service now. Flying was still an elite thing and elites wanted the kinds of foods they knew and liked,” said Foss, author of “Food in the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies.”

He recalled a time when Pan American World Airways roasted beef aboard intercontinental flights.

CUTTING MEAL BUDGETS

Things began to change after the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, forcing carriers to compete on price as much as service. As airlines fought to maintain profitability in this new age, meal budgets were one of the early casualties.

While the decline in service was felt especially hard in coach, Foss said meals in premium cabins didn’t suffer as much because of the high margins the more expensive fares provided to airlines. As far back as 1988, American was employing what it called its “Chefs Conclave” to help design its menus.

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Today, that expertise has taken on the form of celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Joël Robuchon and Danny Meyer, who have helped create menus for Singapore Airlines, Air France and Delta.

New technologies have made the flash-freezing and reheating process employed by airlines less ruinous to food. Newer menus have incorporated organic and locally sourced ingredients where possible. Nik Loukas, who runs the airline food review website Inflight Feed, recalls a recent trip on Delta Air Lines from Seattle that featured ingredients from the city’s famed Pike Place Fish Market.

BETTER ECONOMY MEALS ON HORIZON

Loukas said U.S. airlines have made significant strides in catching up with the quality of meals served by many international airlines, but there’s still room for improvement, especially when it comes to coach meals.

Better economy meals could be on the horizon — at an additional cost — as foreign airlines experiment with options to pre-order food while booking a ticket. Loukas said there are even mobile apps in the works that would allow passengers to order food from an airport restaurant that would then be loaded onto the plane, reheated and served during the flight.

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“I think in the last 18 months U.S.-based passengers have seen an increase in the quality and quantity of offerings, the collaborations with special chefs and brands,” Loukas said. “I think that’s only going to get better in the next two to five years.”