Airport cuisine gets elevated

Airport cuisine gets elevated

World Views

As I headed off on my summer break, I found myself wandering through one of London’s busy airport terminals and was struck by how different these buildings are compared to the ones I passed through when I first boarded an airplane more years ago than I care to mention.

Over the last 25 years, there has been a rapid expansion in the number of people traveling by air. The emergence of low-cost air travel in the 1990s opened air travel to the masses. It also forced the more traditional carriers to reduce their prices, further improving the affordability of this form of transport. Now, in the United Kingdom an estimated 236 million passengers fly each year, and future projections suggest this number will only continue to climb.

With so many people now passing through airport terminals each year, it is no surprise that they are starting to demand more facilities and an improved experience. After all, they are still expected to turn up a couple of hours before international flights leave, and — after a compulsory browse of the duty-free shops — there is still a lot of time that they need to kill.

To fill this time, it seems travelers are increasingly turning to their stomachs and, as such, are seeking a wider range of dining options than the thin coffee, stale sandwiches and greasy “pub grub” of yesteryear.

Airports present a unique environment with a captive market that is often more relaxed and willing to spend money ahead of their holidays. Restaurant and leisure brands have realized the potential and have started to exploit this excellent opportunity.

We have been working closely with Gatwick Airport — London’s second busiest — completing a number of leases to well-known operators that have realized the potential. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver opened Jamie Oliver at Gatwick last year, which provides a number of options for passengers, including a Jamie’s Italian restaurant complete with a “grab and graze” bakery and a Union Jacks Bar. All offer the same uncompromising standards of food and service that diners have come to expect — just in an airport.

We also secured leases with Pret a Manger and Yo! Sushi, which, in addition to offering eat-in dining options, also provide quality, easy-to-eat packaged foods that travelers can take away and eat once airborne. By doing so, these restaurants not only capitalize on the terminal’s hungry diners, but also provide options for travelers on budget airlines — which don’t serve food as standard — as well as people who don’t want to rely on the sometimes unappetizing airplane food. Pret a Manger has even gone as far as offering to-go kids’ lunches specifically created to target this kind of customer.

Between 2012 and 2013, Gatwick’s catering income rose by 6.8 percent to 20.3 million pounds, or about $31.7 million, which it attributed largely to these new leases.

Airlines also are getting in on the act. Virgin Atlantic partnered with Peruvian restaurant Ceviche to open the first-ever airport pop-up restaurant in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at London Heathrow Airport — the U.K.’s busiest airport — in August.

According to a 2013 report for the Civil Aviation Authority, catering makes up 6.8 percent of Heathrow’s retail and property revenues. As the number of passengers and the variety of dining options increase, it is only to be expected that this percentage also will grow.

Keen to continue to build on this success, Heathrow has started to produce hard copies of “Food on the Fly,” a new miniature restaurant guide for the airport that breaks down dining options by terminal and features the top five picks for drinks, sandwiches and healthful food. It also includes dining tips for travelers with an emphasis on healthful food options, as well as British ingredients, gastronomy and future openings. Gatwick, too, markets its facilities to travelers through a voucher passport with discounts and offers to use in its restaurants and retail outlets.

It has just popped up on the screen that my plane has started boarding. As I take my seat, I think about Phileas Fogg, the novel character who famously went around the world in 80 days, and wonder how long before we can eat our way around the world — in cuisine form, of course — before even leaving the airport.

David Coffer is chairman of London-based The Coffer Group, a 40-year-old consulting firm specializing in the leisure sector and comprising Davis Coffer Lyons, Coffer Corporate Leisure, Coffer Hotels and Coffer Leisure Investment Advisory.