In the battle between airlines and airports for your dining dollar, the balance of power has clearly shifted to land-based meals, which, despite their typically inflated prices, are increasingly following trends in the wider world of gastronomy: Food developed by celebrity chefs. Food with local flavor. Even food cooked with garden-fresh ingredients.
The reasons behind the shift are numerous, but it boils down to economics. During the past decade or so, U.S. air carriers have seemingly spent as much time in bankruptcy courts as on tarmacs, and high fuel prices and the recession haven’t helped any of their bottom lines. When Continental Airlines announced in 2010 that it would stop giving away meals in coach for most domestic flights, the company (now merged with United Airlines) was the last domino to fall. A number of media outlets dubbed it the “end of an era.” No free food for you in economy class!
In the past five years or so, airports have worked to fill that caloric void, transforming themselves from captive playgrounds for national food chains whose familiarity helped ease nervous travelers onto planes. Steve Johnson, executive vice president of business development for HMSHost, a food-service provider for 113 airports worldwide, says that this farm-to-table (farm-to-terminal?) conversion merely reflects the broader changes in the way people eat outside the glass walls of an airport.
“I don’t know if it’s a direct response” to declining airline meals, Johnson notes. “If it’s anything, it’s a direct response to what the consumer is asking for.”
And it’s apparently paying off for airports and companies like HMSHost, which licenses and operates many of the name-brand restaurants in terminals around the country. In a March survey of more than 400 travelers by GO Airport Express, a ground transportation company based in Chicago, a minuscule 2 percent said that they buy food on a plane, when it’s even available, while 55 percent said that they eat after going through security. (In airports like Reagan National, waiting to eat after security can reduce your options to fried doughnuts, pretzels, quesadillas, beer or burgers, the kind of gastronomic greasiness that will generate its own form of personal turbulence, as I can attest.)
The survey results should come as no surprise, at least for those economy-class types on domestic flights. Airlines tend to forgo meals altogether on shorter coach flights, while trying to entice travelers on longer trips to pull out their ATM or credit cards (cash has gone the way of free meals) for a selection of salads, fruit-and-cheese plates, reheated sandwiches or snack boxes stuffed with all manner of processed foods. It’s little wonder that 26 percent of the respondents to GO Airport Express’s survey said that they either eat at home first or wait until they reach their destination.
But airports are increasingly giving fliers reasons to drop money at the terminal. Celebrity chefs have seized yet opportunity to parade their brands around. The list of top-shelf toques working the airport circuit includes many of the usual suspects: Todd English (whose Bonfire can be found in JFK and Logan airports in New York and Boston respectively), Wolfgang Puck (whose Express concepts are as common as roller bags in terminals), Rick Bayless (whose Tortas Frontera at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago actually lists the food suppliers on the menu) and Cat Cora (who has two different concepts in three airports). Even Season 6 “Top Chef” winner Michael Voltaggio plans to get in on the action with his sandwich shop, ink.sack, scheduled to open in March at LAX in Los Angeles.