Why Have Airport Restaurants and Amenities Recently Gotten So Much Better?

As a general matter, airport restaurants are bad. Or, at least, they’re much worse than comparable offerings outside the airport.

Restaurants have to bring everything in through security (and they can’t do it during peak times when the concourse is packed). The airport may not permit gas ovens, so everything has to get re-created using electric. Chefs knives frequently have to be tethered to a wall to prevent being taken (and inventoried every day).

When you run a restaurant inside an airport you have a large number of people who need to be served quickly — you need to prepare for quick service even trumping quality because of the pressures of flight departures. Your customers have varying tastes, they didn’t travel to your location to eat your food they are at your location in order to travel.

But restaurants and other amenities far surpass what used to be available in airports. Airport food and services used to be known as expensive and low quality. That’s changed.

There are certainly more outside restaurants recreating their offerings inside the airport than there used to be.

Some chef creations in the airport are even good.

I saw the question of why things have changed posed by a professor in my Facebook feed this morning. And I have to admit I’m not certain I can offer a single cause. But five factors come to mind:

  1. Passengers started spending more time at airports as a result of the inconsistencies in wait times resulting from the TSA.

  2. During the last decade when airlines were struggling financially due to recessions and rising fuel costs they moved away from ‘banked hubs’ and thus increased connection times in order to save substantially on labor costs. (Banked hubs are returning, for instance American Airlines has re-banked some hubs this year.) So again, more time in airports.

  3. Changing consumer tastes matter too, such a desire to eat healthier and willingness to spend for that. Average ancillary spend during travel is up.

  4. Airport leases are generally written as revenue sharing… bigger sales volume generates more revenue for the airport authority. So when consumer preferences will support pricier airport amenities, airports are incentivized to accommodate.

  5. Airports compete more than in the past to be pleasant connecting hubs to retain service. If consumer prefer flying through an airport, that means more traffic, and the city is better able to retain service.

Do you enjoy shopping and dining in the terminal more than you used to? Do you find revamped concessions to be value add, or do you just want a quick and efficient airport experience that gets you in and out quickly?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] Why Have Airport Restaurants and Amenities Recently Gotten So Much Better? – View from the Wing). My dream is Costco running a cafe in every US airport. I liked when I was in college Philadelphia had typical chains and others, with a program that they pledged to keep prices the same as non-airport locations in the city. […]

Comments

  1. Very airport dependent.

    SFO, MIA yes (the AA terminal)
    ORD, LAX no (AA terminal)

    I need not just tasty but low carb and healthy. Tortas fails there (for me, others I know love it).

    People complain about MIA, but it’s now gorgeous. The train cuts down on the walking if one doesn’t want to. They have the best food options after SFO.

  2. There are far more serious options, to the point where there are many airports where I would consider eating a meal upon arrival if my hotel dinner options weren’t strong. I have picked up Tortas Frontera at O’Hare on arrival before, and would eat at Legal Seafoods in Boston or DC instead of an East Boston/Crystal City hotel restaurant.

    One of the reasons airport dining has improved is that in-flight dining has gone into the bucket. If you are flying for 4-8 hours, you’d better get a solid meal before you get on the plane.

  3. America’s desire for good food has risen in the past decade; everything else is the free market at work.

    While the food in first class has gone downhill during this period, the quality of the food in coach has improved (at a cost, obviously). Again, both of these trends are the free market doing its thing.

  4. It’s not clear whether you are talking about Fine Dining, or food as fuel.

    If the former, airports are not conducive to Fine Dining for the reasons you have already expressed – people are not there to eat but to fly, so eating is a secondary activity.

    If the latter, then standards of chain, or semi-chain restaurants have improved immeasurably. There are now far more chain type establishments which are popular, so it’s not surprising they reappear in airports.

  5. For anyone who remembers DTW pre-McNamara and pre-new North Terminal, this article is very, very relevant. I fly in and out of DTW quite a bit, and used to D.R.E.A.D. the experience. The McNamara terminal changed that, and I was very happy to see them continue with the new North Terminal. Whereas before, your best options were Burger King or Cinnabon (ew and ew), you’re not spoiled for choice – chains for those who want something safe, and local favorites for those who want something different. Hoping that this trend continues. Definitely makes the time spent in the terminal more enjoyable.

  6. Tortas Frontera @ ORD and Legal at BOS stand out. Basically someone finally figured out that people want more than the usual XXXX that you encounter in US airports.
    MSP is a great example of the improved food – they have at least 7-8 solid options now. I hear that EWR is to see investment by the same company behind MSP….cannot happen soon enough.

  7. I fly back and forth between LAS and ORD almost weekly. I use the Frontera app to preorder a Torta coming or going. And I’ve started scheduling layover in LAX on one leg so I can run over to Tom Bradley to pick up something from ink.sack. I don’t care why the food has gotten better, I’ll just accept it happily.

  8. “One of the reasons airport dining has improved is that in-flight dining has gone into the bucket. If you are flying for 4-8 hours, you’d better get a solid meal before you get on the plane.”

    Nick nailed it. I’m old enough to remember when getting a free meal on a long flight was something taken for granted.

  9. Shula Burgers at FLL (Terminal 1, I think) has been a great addition recently. This chain makes awesome burgers!

  10. As airports in the U.S. again become a bastion of a relatively more wealthy demographic customer base — due to the relative decline in air travel affordability for average Americans as industry consolidation got worse for US consumers — the F&B establishments went relatively more upscale too. Also, the airport owners/operators have their own financial incentives to see increased retail revenue, and this kind of stuff helps with airport finances. The relatively upscale mall-ification of airports is going to continue, whether or not it suits the most frequent of frequent travelers.

  11. Gary – would love you to go into further depth about OTG (they’ve taken over EWR). Sure, there are some fancy new options, but they jacked up all the prices and the iPad ordering (including tipping BEFORE you get any food or drink) is awful. I get it may speed things (in theory) but it also eliminates any interaction with the staff.

    @Presley – Klatch in LAX T7 is pretty good

  12. Another +1 for Legal BOS. Lobster roll was as good as any other in town including highly rated ones.

  13. About a hundred years ago the best airport dining in America was at the old EWR terminal. It was the original Windows on the World before it moved to the WTC.

  14. One reason is US airline lounges really suck after all the cutbacks. If you want a real meal, you have to leave the lounge and sit in a restaurant. And of course, those lounge dragons will not let you bring outside food into the lounge, either.

    Then there’s AA, that charges for premium food in the Admirals Clubs at a price higher than the outside restaurant and quality that’s much worse. The nerve!

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