Would You Pay $20 for a First-Class Meal in Coach?

US Airways recently became what it calls the first U.S. carrier to offer coach-class customers the option to select a premium meal option on international flights. (Read more: Eat Like You're Rich: US Airways Offers Deluxe Meals in Coach)

US Airways Dine Fresh
Source: US Airways
US Airways Dine Fresh

A premium meal means you get a little taste of first or business class in economy. As is usually the case with first or business class, that option comes with an extra charge—$19.99.

I recently had a chance to sample the premium meal on a flight to Lisbon, Portugal.

But is it worth $20?

There are two premium options. The vegetarian meal comes with a humus and cracker appetizer, Portobello mushroom tortellini, Caprese salad with balsamic dressing, and turtle cheesecake. The meat meal comes with citrus-marinated chicken skewers, grilled vegetables, shrimp cocktail, and creme brulee cheesecake for dessert.

Everyone else around my friend and me had either a pasta or chicken option. Their meal came in the usual plastic containers with plastic wrap. I knew, from all my flights on various airlines over the years, that chicken is usually the safest option. But it's often bland and chewy.

My friend and I tried both the vegetarian and meat premium options. Each came in a box. When they arrived, they looked like gifts.

Sure, when it came down to it, once we opened each one, it still looked like a glorified bento box. But I give US Airways points for presentation. The grilled vegetables were lined up in a perfectly color-coded row in their little section. The chicken skewers were beautifully glazed and carefully positioned. The cheesecake was topped with a strawberry.

The veggie meal was as carefully laid out. The tomato and mozzarella salad looked fresh considering it was airplane food. The tortellini was fluffy. The humus came with tasty olives on a bed of radicchio. The cheesecake once again sported a juicy strawberry.

Our only complaint was that the chicken and tortellini were cold. We wondered: Why couldn't they figure out away to heat them up? Nonetheless, we thought the food tasted so much better than most airline food we've had in economy class. The chicken was not rubbery. It was actually properly peppered and salted. The tortellini had a good filling.

Shrimp cocktail on a plane? We worried about food poisoning. But the shrimp was one of the highlights of the meal. The humus and Caprese salad were refreshing.

And each cheesecake was as good as we'd had at some restaurants.

Both meals came with a mini-bottle of wine. Considering that a glass of wine costs about $7 in coach class on most domestic flights, we were happy to have that as part of the deal.

During our flight back to Washington, D.C., we had the regular meal. My friend theorizes that airplane meals are better on trips from Europe versus trips to Europe. She argues that food, even if it's loaded on a plane, is better in Europe.

We each chose the pasta. When it landed on my tray, it looked sad compared with the bento box we had on the way to Lisbon. There were no sophisticated appetizers and sides. When we unwrapped the pasta, though, it was hot and kind of tasty. Perhaps my friend's European food theory is correct.

Sadly though, there was no wine this time. Then again, it was free—sort of.