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Mercifully, the days of bad airplane food are a distant memory.

At least that was the message of the hundreds of participants at the 1996 International Inflight Food Service Association convention this week.Dozens of food displays at a convention hall carried the message: Bland pot roast and mashed potatoes are out, and vegetarian tamales, Cajun chicken sandwiches and fresh-baked cookies are in.

"The industry is starved for new ideas," said Jerry Eggenberger, business-development manager for Fantasia, a Minneapolis company that makes custom gourmet desserts for major airlines.

Pointing to a plate of turtle brownie truffles on top of a display case with other sweet treats inside, Eggenberger explained the company's philosophy.

"We've tried to come up with a signature look, where the desserts look homemade and decadent," he said. "We don't sell low-fat."

But D&F Marketing of Atlanta sells healthy.

"People are more aware of preservatives, so they want healthy, fresh foods," said Wolfgang Diehl, a German-born chef who founded D&F Marketing nine years ago.

It's only been in the past few years that airlines have adequately serviced their customers who wanted kosher or vegetarian meals.

Marcel Lagnaz, a chef and part-owner of the Los Angeles-based Gourmet Foods Inc., said his sales to airlines of specialty vegetarian dishes have soared in the past few years.

"It's getting bigger all the time," Lagnaz said.

"You find older people who want to diet and younger people that don't believe in killing animals. People are looking for vegetarian meals."

So Gourmet Foods offers dishes to passengers on the airlines it services such as buckwheat loaf, Malaysian chicken, vegetarian dim sum and vegetarian curry.

Lagnaz said one of the business's top customers, Virgin Atlantic Airways, reported that 25 percent of passengers on its worldwide flights have requested vegetarian meals.

In the age of nouvelle airline cuisine, experimentation goes hand in hand with variety.

D&F Marketing representative Jody Jones described her company's most unusual creation.

"We did a chocolate chile cheesecake for Delta Airlines last year, which had ancho chiles in it," Jones said.

"It worked. Delta served it for six months as part of its Southwestern cuisine menu. We got great feedback from passengers."