Airport food is hard

* space is at a huge premium, you can store very little
* knives are usually chained to the wall, and inventoried between shifts
* you can’t just bring supplies down the airport corridors when you need them. Items need to clear security.  It’s often a third party that’s engaged to do that, and it has to happen off hours.  Working with the third party can make sourcing ingredients challenging.
* customers have varied tastes and need to be served quickly.  Despite the high rents and challenging operating environment airports often require ‘street pricing’ (charge the same in the airport, perhaps plus 10%, versus what same item would cost on the outside)
* it’s not even the restaurant that’s managing the operation, usually they are licensing he concept.  For example there are only two vendors offering food serving in the Phoenix airport, despite all the different restaurant names.
* in Atlanta the way you get into the airport is ‘partnering with’ the former Mayor’s daughter
And consumers are pretty captive, security won’t let you bring many food items into the airport…

That is all from an email from Air Genius Gary Leff.


Kudos to Singapore's award-winning Changi airport for having gotten this right. Best airport food I've ever had.

That has to do with the cuisine. I also enjoy the "hawker" fare in Changi, but there's a reason that every hawker's fare across the entire country tastes almost exactly the same - the ingredients aren't fresh and the preparation isn't complicated.

That's such a good point about the commodification of inputs and the cuisine (at least for the lower range). First time I am thinking about it actually.

The airport restaurant only charges a very limited premium for the basic chicken rice or mian, so it seems to a sign of the holistic approach enabled by involvement competent gov't.

Food is not the only thing service that just works perfectly at Changi. AFAIK, the only other place in the world where a passenger can do home to boarding gate in 30 min is Geneva - 1/4 million inhabitants.

"Changi airport ... Best airport food I've ever had."

My God it must have improved since the last time I ate there.

What, no black pudding or spotted dick?

That's why you should always pack some Turkey Twizzlers in your carry on luggage.

Rather similar to this 2015 article from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

And indeed similar to this 2014 article of mine:

My assumption has always been that the reason airport food is bad is lack of information. Customers have no way of knowing what is good, and since they are mainly occasional customers, they can't reward a good experience with repeat business (a corollary of this theory is that you should watch where pilots and flight attendants are eating to find the best food).

If good results were rewarded in a competitive market, most of the points highlighted in this post would be overcome.

However, if most airports do not really have competition between a number of vendors, then that would be a problem, as well. I wonder if the Phoenix example is typical?

Is any food business in an airport not part of a big food chain? Customers can taste the food chain at home and then expect the same at the airport. More expensive because the rent is higher, security issues or whatever, but the flavor must be the same.

Yes, I've seen plenty of airport food businesses that are not part of big chains.

Even with chains, the quality varies quite a lot, with airport branches often being horrible.

This is right. There are food courts at airports, which are often a lot like mall food courts, with similar offerings. If you'd eat at a mall food court, you might find it okay, like that, but maybe at 80-90% of the quality. If you'd not eat at a mall food court, you'll go somewhere else (that hopefully has beer...) and, you might get something pretty good! But, there's also a good chance you'll get something bad. Places that can make a bad burger (I mean, not just not good, but bad), or a bad reuben, those are pretty bad places!

And yet... there is a lot of variation in the quality of airport food, especially between airports, but even within it. The Denver airport, for example, has a couple of different places that offer really good food. (The New Belgium pub and restaurant is as good as most brewpubs, with better beer, and there is another, more up-scale place, whose name I'm forgetting, that had food better than most mid-level or higher restaurants outside airports, plus Odell beer, which is excellent.)

The big problem I see with most airport food these days is that it is pre-cooked and then warmed. This is faster, and that's a plus. But, it's not good food. This is spreading, and I doubt it's _required_ by the reasons above, unless they have become more strict in the last year and a half.

So, I suspect there's a good deal of BS in the above examples, of things one "must" do, or "has to" do, when that means "I won't make quite as much money as I want unless I do it." That's okay - make as much money as you want! But, don't pretend like this means you "must" do something.

"and there is another, more up-scale place, whose name I'm forgetting"

Elway's? I was too cheap to go there and ended up at Aviators. It was "ok"

I've eaten at Elway's several times and thought it was good (but not cheap).

Not Elway's - I've never tried it so can't say anything about it, other than it doesn't look like my sort of place. Probably Root Down, though it was a few years back now, and I don't remember for sure. (It was in the Southwest terminal.)

Denver has very good food, Root Down is amazing and a huge perk of flying Southwest. SLC also does very well. Phoenix used to be pretty good foodwise but it has been rapidly downhill for the last decade, it is starting to make me appreciate McCarran LAS to it.

The restaurants at Sky Harbor (Phoenix) vary wildly depending on the terminal, and terminal 4 is definitely where it's at. They've added a bunch of local favorites in recent years, including Tammie Coe, Humble Pie, Four Peaks Brewery, Matt's Big Breakfast, and I think a few others. None of those restaurants are as good as their real-world counterparts, but they're much better than typical airport fare.

" And consumers are pretty captive, security won’t let you bring many food items into the airport…"
I would think this last point makes Airport food easy , not hard. pretty much passengers have to suck up and eat what is available. And nothing more frustrating than buying Ellenos Greek yogurt in Seattle , forgetting its a banned substance under TSA rules and forcing oneself to gorge as much of it as we could , as we unfortunately had to do once.

Anyone flying frequently gets more value for the money by using private lounges. Lots of credit cards include them as a perk. Food may not be better but at least it doesn't feel that expensive and free beer.

Let’s not broadcast this too widely. Bad enough that so many people use precheck that the regular lines are sometimes faster. I don’t need all of them in the lounges too!

That $450 Amex platinum is worth every penny!

Looks like it does not apply to major Italian airports. Both Fiumicino and Malpensa have remarkably good food and wine service - nothing exceptional really, but for some reason you cannot have a similiarly healthy lunch at other European airports.

"in Atlanta the way you get into the airport is ‘partnering with’ the former Mayor’s daughter"

I AM told business are like that in Angola, too.

Yes, and Angola a few years ago was the most expensive city in the world for the same reasons (monopoly pricing, hard to service for various reasons, mostly political). Fresh veggies in Phoenix is also a problem for obvious reasons of logistics. Food in Manila's main airport, though it's chain restaurants (e.g., Wendy's, Jolibees, McDo), is also not that great due to lack of repeat business and other reasons cited above.

Bonus trivia: my New Year's resolution is to post here less...but I'll still be lurking and posting from time to time. Life is too short trying to educate others (TC take note!), and if education is just signaling, as Caplan says and I agree, it's a waste of time trying to educate others.

..."to post here less.."

Oh Ray! Say it ain't so ! We miss you here already.

"if education is just signaling, as Caplan says and I agree, it's a waste of time trying to educate others."
I don't think that's the proper conclusion. Caplan is referring only to formal education, not to the whole concept of education. I think part of the signal of formal education is that the person is capable of learning, no matter the institution--for instance, going to a class on the Philippines may not teach anything of value on the subject, but a motivated individual will also seek out high-quality sources, such as your comments on this site.

If airport food is so Hard, why is are there never any vacant lots? Or to put it another way; how do the rents compare with the high street?

On the plus side:

1) Captive customers
2) Minimal repeat business (so who cares about reputation?)
3) Longer opening hours per day (and the customers to fill them)
4) Customers more likely to spend at the margin than in the High Street
...a) they are desperate to use up the last of their local currency
....b) they are on holiday, damnit!
....c) they are on expenses, damnit!
.....d) they are rich enough to afford plane tickets, damnit!

It's about the US, so the currency is not a problem. I won't name a well-known currency union with hundreds of daily international flights to avoid hurting sensibilities.

Kudos to the ex-mayor's daughter - I had a rare good airport meal in Atlanta 5-6 years ago.

Another episode of Tyler's First World Problems.

soo, what do we need
to know about
ghengis khan airlines?

Every time I see someone complain about someone complaining about "First World problems" I internally translate it as "You should care about what I say you should care about!"

As noted above, "in Atlanta the way you get into the airport is ‘partnering with’ the former Mayor’s daughter" is in fact a third world problem.

Everyone knows the real problems are second world problems.

Those constraints seem to apply to all airports worldwide, so what explains the enormous variability in the quality and range of airport food (and drink) - especially between the US (consistently abysmal) and the rest of the world where airport food ranges from average to really good?

How would you rate USA food in general? If you rate the food in general as poor, the explanation is "You don't like USA foods".

In my experience, food at airports isn't substantially lower in quality than food elsewhere. The options are more limited, and the atmosphere is very much not conducive to enjoying the dining experience, though, which may also affect it. Most people in airports are rushed, stressed, and to some extent sleep-deprived, and the meals are in loud, generally uncomfortable areas (does anyone outside of airports use those chairs?). And it's been amply demonstrated that we factor all of that into our evaluation of food--our brains treat food quality as a sort of catch-all for the full experience. Simply put, after a rigorous pat-down by TSA nothing is going to taste good!

If you're hungry the airport is a good place to go for a meal even though the parking might be an expensive hassle. Other possible dining alternatives are NFL football games and major league baseball games. Hospital dining rooms are good, too.

Several of these conditions apply equally to food trucks which explains their high prices as well.

Overall, the non-economist generally greatly underestimates the cost of space. Because storage space is limited and is not revenue producing, it has a high opportunity cost. High margin items tends to crowd out low margin items on scarce shelf space.

Recently at a convenience store, my wife noticed that there was a wide variety of sandwiches in a refrigerated counter, but there was only one sandwich of each type. If one is purchased, would it be restocked from the refigerated storage area? Why not stock more up front? Is it to prevent theft? Is variety of choices more profitable than having several of a popular item stocked? It was a curious usage of scarce space that I want to think about more.

"customers have varied tastes and need to be served quickly. '
But they are not served quickly. The quality of the food bothers me less than what always seems like slow service. Maybe it's the self-imposed pressure brought on by knowing I have limited time.

Your time isn't limited any more than anyone else. Everybody gets 24 hours each time the earth makes a revolution. If you're somehow being short changed on time maybe Elizabeth Warren can do something about it.

Quite obviously "limited time" refers to the limit of time available between flights. If I have a flight that lands at 15:00, and one that leaves at 16:00, I don't have time for the staff to take 45 minutes to prepare a meal and another 20 to deal with the bill, the way I do when I normally go out to eat.

At an airport you are on someone else's schedule.

DEN has many vendors.
The selection process favors local businesses and is semi-transparent.

This explains why the Montreal airport has such bad food.

>charge the same in the airport, perhaps plus 10%, versus what same item would cost on the outside

Only a 10% surcharge?

Have you or Gary ever been to an airport?

Chicago's O'Hare has a Tortas Fronteras (Rick Bayless) and a Publican Anker (Paul Kahan). I used to depart from there, but now arriving there I still stop at those places.

The food is so good there that I now just hang around and eat instead of getting on my flight (where the food is much worse.)

I’ve never understood restaurants in airports. Every time I travel I’m amazed at the number of people who are are eating, considering most travelers are in an airport for two hours. I have no problem going 8-10 hours without food, but I carry an apple &/or energy bar just in case. The constant availability of food, regardless of quality or price, helps explain why 71% of Americans are overweight or obese.

Eating out of boredom? Desire to use up currency? Excitement? Filling up before a flight on which the food WILL be horrible whereas in the airport it only MIGHT be horrible? Hunger after driving 5 hours to reach airport? Sitting beats standing around?

The most shocking thing for any Australian flying into the USA is the extent of morbid obesity among the locals.

Its nauseating.

Whatever happened to fasting for 12 hours?

% obese:

U.S. 36%
Australia 29%
U.K obese 28%
France 28%
Germany 22%
Japan 4%

Too much KFC, McDonald's, Hungry Jacks [Burger King]

Everyone was thin until these chains invaded 30 yrs ago!

Seriously, obesity here is a class thing. If you work in the CBD [equivalent to Manhattan] you never see it. But, get out in the Western Suburbs, and its an epidemic [but I swear to God, you won't find 400 pound women there, which are common in the States]

Are they, though? Or do you just notice them? I mean, how many 400 lb men do you see on a regular basis? I'm betting you have to think about it--you don't notice them.

It's like cars. If you buy, say, and Audi, you start seeing Audis everywhere. There hasn't been an increase in their popularity, you just started to notice them more.

Obesity is pretty high in Australia, too, and the "overweight" category for the two countries is nearly the same. Too many "big breckys" will do that to you.

When I fly it's usually an all-day affair. While I CAN go a fairly long time without food, I don't WANT to do so. I prefer to eat at regular intervals. Most people, in my experience, are the same--they eat at roughly the same time every day, and want to continue that schedule even when they travel.

Further, most of my travel is for work. If I go 10 hours without eating (sometimes more, depending on flight plans), I'm going to be short-tempered, hungry, and distracted. This can result in me screwing up and costing the company far more than a meal would. Better to eat when I get the chance, and be ready for what's coming, than to try to push myself and take my chances. Many of the business travelers I've met (remember, this doesn't just include guys in suits--this includes a surprising number of construction types, particularly in the green energy fields) feel the same way about meals.

I spend a lot of time flying in and out of second and third tier cities in the US west and the largest portion of frequent fliers are definitely skilled workmen, usually construction, this has been true with technicians fir years, but nowadays you need to call out for everything.

If I'm supposed to be at the airport for 2 hours, chances are it'll turn into 3 or 4 or more. (I once had breakfast, lunch, and dinner at O'Hare.)

Believe it or not, the concessions company in charge of all the stores and eateries at a particular U.S. airport often will send in mystery shoppers to report back on the quality of food and service.

It's a pretty weird assignment -- you spend about five hours cruising around, hitting about eight stores and six food places (burp!) and trying to look inconspicuous. Airport officials will sneak you through security as needed.

I've done this at several American airoorts but have no idea if it's done in other countries.

Affirmative action / political favoritism plays a role. For example, Tony Rezko ran several O'Hare Panda Expresses when he was business manager of the Nation of Islam.

Tony Rezko is white. Are you sure he was business manager of the Nation of Islam?

I always bring the food I want to eat on my trip to the airport. The TSA website says you can bring a 10ft long sub sandwich as long as it fits in your carry on. My sig other and I flew out of SFO and we "carried on" great sandwiches from Mr. Pickle and baked goods from Dragon Bakery. Liquids and drinks are a no-go, but solids are a go. Airport food is for busy people who don't have the time and people who don't know better.

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