Behold! The $11 in-flight meal. But is it worth it?

Now that airline fees are part of the furniture, we venture to the next new wrinkle in the sky. Airlines, knowing their bottom lines depend on surcharges, are learning to make those surcharges less painful by offering higher quality for them -- or, at least, pretending to.

Take Midwest Airlines. For years, it has had a reputation as having some of the best in-flight service among domestic airlines. That's not saying much these days, of course, and its most famous amenity is the just-baked, chocolate-chip cookies served toward the end of every flight, which is hardly a valuable take-home considering that up until 2001, the same flight attendants were serving full complimentary meals on china.Recently, I was on a $99 Midwest Airlines flight that, despite a length of a little over two hours, offered meals that may portend a new brand of first-class touches served a la carte. One option was a $6 summer sausage sandwich, which didn't appeal. But the other caught my attention -- an Asian Noodle Salad with chicken. It wasn't the dish, per se, that snagged my attention. It was the price: 11 bucks.

Maybe it was my imagination, but that price sent a shimmy of surprise throughout the cabin, although the decent Midwesterners around me were too polite to pound their trays in fury. The airline industry was recently giving meals away as part of a competitive strategy, and now, in the space of a few years, it was charging prices like a mid-level casual restaurant. Today, if you want a salad in a plastic tray, it's $11.

I just had to order it. I did it mostly so I could see how badly we're getting ripped off in the new era of fees. I did it as a warning for you.

Or so I thought. The meal placed before me was preposterously priced, but as it turned out, I didn't end up choking on my outrage. The portion was larger than anything I'd ever seen in the air. In fact, it was filling, not just something sized to tide me over. The meat was good, not of the mysterious variety, although I didn't taste the "soy-and-orange" marinade that was supposed to be in it. True, it had been refrigerated for too long -- cold meat is such a gastronomic turn-off -- it came with fruit, wontons, and a thick sesame dressing served on the side, so it wouldn't make everything else soggy. By the same token, it wasn't something I would go out of my way to eat twice in my neighborhood, either, but in that it was acceptable, if average. On every level, it was a huge improvement over the old airline business-as-usual.

After we landed, I called a rep for the airline to ask just why it cost so much. I was told they're made "fresh before each flight under the direction of an actual chef." That description was vague to the point of uselessness, but this one wasn't: "The larger meal with the higher price point is what the business traveler has said is a good fit for them."

Yes, $11 is a huge price for a meal, but Midwest Airlines doesn't pretend that it's for everyone. This is something pitched to the business travel market. The meals were made, in fact, at Mader's German restaurant in downtown Milwaukee, where that "actual chef" apparently works.

The $11 airline meal is not the most memorable thing you've ever eaten. It may not even be worth $11. But given our hobbled expectations of the airline industry, it's certainly measurably better than the congealed mistakes that some other airlines are charging us for. For once, I didn't feel blatantly ripped off. Just a little ripped off. Success!

Even if Midwest is charging a few bold suckers (such as myself) T.G.I. Friday's prices for a noodle salad, it hasn't retreated from its custom of furnishing free cookies, baked on board by flight attendants. Just how much does it cost the airline to give out what may be one of the last freebies in the air? "We don't talk publicly about the pricing of our onboard products," I was told, "but suffice it to say, it's a small investment for what is now a hallmark of the Midwest brand."

It's for those cookies that the airline hangs onto its reputation as one of the "nicest" carriers in the United States. For the price of some raw cookie dough, an airline can generate enough goodwill so that the announcement of an $11 salad falls on deaf ears in the cabin.

May the other airlines, who have trimmed so much fat that they're nothing but bones and teeth, take note.

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