Now would be a good time to point out that this was a nonstop, five-plus-hour flight between two of the largest cities in one of the most advanced economies in the 21st-century world.
Seated three rows from the back, I was mildly horrified by this brazen attempt at a preemptive apology. It was as if the airline were saying, "I dare you to be disappointed, I dare you to eat lunch." But I hoped for the best, as did the passenger to my right, retired South Jersey public-school principal Mike Muldoon.
In November, Muldoon was on a 6 1/2-hour American Airlines flight from Dallas to Hawaii that ran out of food before it reached his row. A steward was kind enough to share his personal fruit stash with the 62-year-old from Franklinville, who has diabetes.
After watching everyone ahead of us get served, the flight attendant finally arrived at Row 24 - just three rows from the only two bathrooms for everyone in coach. This was a big plane, an A-320 jetliner. We're talking people, plenty of them.
My hands were sweating, as if I were doubled down at a blackjack table waiting for the dealer to flip me a king and an ace. "I'd like an Italian club wrap," I said, believing that, somehow, positivity would prevail against frightfully long odds.
"I am out of the wrap," she replied, in a polite but bloodless tone that felt more "Que sera, sera, coach captive," less "Oh, yes, Richard Branson has just introduced competing Philly-to-L.A. flights on Virgin, how can we thank you for your $489 ticket and $25 baggage fee, dear lady?"
I sighed. So this is what modern travel has come to, I reflected: Relentless airline cost-cutting and high fuel prices have turned what was once a fanciful, affordable luxury into a form of consumer corporal punishment. What's next: oxygen masks for premium customers only?
"What sandwiches do you have?" I inquired, refusing to sulk right then and there.
The attendant gave her cart a sober scan before rattling off what the Twittersphere would hashtag as a jaw-dropping #InventoryFail: "I am out of sandwiches. I am out of the chicken salad."
My mind went into overload as dread compounded hunger. There was little else in terms of lunch-worthy food, so it was even lovelier to learn that, of the two snack boxes offered, only one was left containing meat.
I snatched the last $6 CafePlus snack box. (An even unluckier passenger behind me groaned.) I was rewarded with a plastic-wrapped cardboard packet tantalizingly illustrated with pictures of fresh green apples, chocolate, and what appeared to be freshly grated cheese. But it was featherlight, suggesting a form of false advertising that, sadly, came true.
Lunch, as some might generously call it, consisted of an 0.8-ounce pack of beef salami slices (no fork); a 0.75-ounce cylinder of cheese spread; a few crackers; a few pretzel crisps; a 0.75-ounce pack of dried fruit; a 0.56-ounce bag of nuts; and a single shortbread cookie. Oh, and a plastic knife.
A disappointed Muldoon didn't even bother ordering. Instead, he reached into the carry-on bag stuffed between his cramped legs. Before I knew it, he was chomping through a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on white and an apple brought from home.
A guy who shoots himself with insulin five times a day can't play it too safe.
"I had this as a backup," said Muldoon, whose ticket cost $575. "I'm no fool."
He chuckled, but in a way that implied disappointment, not enjoyment: "What do they say, 'Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me?' You live and you learn."
I opened my salami packet; my fingers were inevitably smeared with grease. Ditto with the restaurant-butter-size portion of cheese spread. I scavenged for a napkin: none. I asked the flight attendant, now two rows behind me, if she had one.
"Not on this cart," she replied, and tossed a dispassionate nod about 15 rows away, where another attendant was tending to the beverage cart.
As I struggled to comprehend all this, a man's voice came over the P.A. system: "We are recycling on today's flight," he said, urging caution in assembling our waste.
How magnanimous. I wanted to shout back, "Give me a napkin, and I'll let you recycle it, for crying out loud!"
About 10 minutes later, I got my napkin. No charge.
Que sera, sera, especially if you're flying coach.
Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @panaritism.