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.
Airports are also embracing local dining icons in their markets, like Anthony’s, which averages 1,500 transactions a day while dealing in fresh Pacific Northwest seafood at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Or like the Varsity, an Atlanta greasy spoon institution since 1928, which recently opened an outlet at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. “We want [restaurants] to reflect our culture,” says HMSHost’s Johnson, “so when you fly into Portland, it feels like Portland.”
The key for these chefs, celebrity or otherwise, is finding a way to deal with the unique challenges of airport dining: the high volume, the small operational spaces and the daily rush-rush panic of feeding people quickly before their planes leave the tarmac. “We had to work with these guys on how can you get a high-quality meal in a short amount of time,” says Johnson. “They were challenged by this.”
Each chef and each airport deals with these challenges differently, Johnson notes, but advance prep and/or off-site cooking are often vital. (Then again, chefs at O’Hare have a built-in advantage: They can just pluck fresh vegetables and herbs from a hydroponic garden installed in a previously unused area of the airport.)
Airports are also embracing technology to bring passengers food in a more timely manner. About a month ago, HMSHost launched a pilot program at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where the company introduced Presto tablets to Taberna del Tequila in Terminal 4. The tablets allow diners to browse through the menu, order their own food and even pay their check without waiting for their waiter to finally put down his smartphone. Similarly, HMSHost has rolled out its B4 You Board mobile app in five airports nationwide; the technology allows travelers to order meals from select HMSHost-run restaurants in the airport and have the food delivered fresh at the gate.
The technologies, Johnson says, give travelers a small sense of control in a captive airport environment in which all sorts of unpredictable things can happen, from delayed flights to long TSA lines.
Airlines may face stiffer competition from their on-ground counterparts, but they aren’t completely giving up on food service, at least not in first-class or “premium” seats where the meals are usually included in the price of the ticket. “They need to be very, very focused on those people,” says Russell Lemieux, executive director of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, a network of airlines, suppliers and related companies that focus on the passenger experience. “Those are their best customers, or among their most valued.”
In fact, like restaurants inside airports, airlines are aligning themselves with celebrity chefs. American Airlines has just recruited Mexican chef Richard Sandoval to develop premium-class entrees such as halibut with truffle corn salsa and lemongrass-marinated chicken breast. Likewise, United Airlines has assembled a “Congress of Chefs,” including notables such as Bryan Caswell and Roy Yamaguchi, to help create recipes for its premium-cabin customers. United even employs a master sommelier, Doug Frost, to select wines.
And yet if you look at customer surveys, it’s often the foreign air carriers, such as Turkish Airlines or Singapore Airlines, that earn the highest marks for food. Air France, as you might suspect, is among the top airlines in terms of food quality. That’s not by accident. The airline has employed some of the finest chefs in France for special occasions and/or regular duties. Among them: Alain Ducasse, Guy Martin and Antoine Westermann. In fact, Joel Robuchon presides over Servair’s Culinary Studio, a collection of star chefs who help develop recipes and ideas for Air France’s premium-cabin passengers. The process of moving from celebrity-chef recipe to actual airline dish can be cumbersome, says Michel Quissac, corporate chef for Air France’s catering division, given the many limitations of onboard cuisine.
“Once the recipes are chosen, we work to adapt the dish to our specific constraints to find the best balance between the recipe devised by the chef and the reality of our processes,” notes Quissac. “We then carry out in-flight tests and make the necessary corrections until the recipe is consistent with the chef’s original idea. A few years ago, we tested recipes up to 18 times. Today, we finalize the recipe with an average of four trial runs.”
That, in short, is a recipe for creating memorable food, whether on the ground or 35,000 feet in the air.