Why is airport food so bad?

Oh, well, Marseille Airport. Image: Getty.

I’ve had some of the best food of my life in New York. The steakhouses are world famous. There’s a little Korean place in Brooklyn where I suddenly understood bibimbap. I had breakfast pancakes that came with a butterball the size of an ice cream scoop. And then I went to John F Kennedy Airport and had to have a packet of crisps for lunch before my flight back to London.

This is usually the case: you travel across the world to eat amazing food, and then at the airport you’re stuck with a choice of a dry sandwich or junk food. We’re a captive audience once we’ve passed security, true, and if you’re hungry you’ll eat whatever is available.

But as people are becoming more interested in good food, this is surely a missed opportunity for airport authorities. There’s only so much Toblerone you can buy – and what better way to soothe the restlessness ahead of boarding a plane than to have something to eat? At the airport we’re stuck with nothing to do but wait – It’s the perfect time for a snack.

Yet this is a desire that seems destined to go unfulfilled. There are glimmers of hope as airports around the world will occasionally surprise, and the situation overall is less terrible than it used to be. But usually, the pickings are slim. Barcelona may be a tapas paradise, but the airport is a sad story for gastronomy. When I went to the brand new Doha Airport in Qatar, the best I could do was an over-refrigerated chickpea salad. Last summer, when I was stuck for several hours at Amsterdam Schiphol – one of the best-designed airports I’ve ever been to – I ate McDonald’s. Twice.

Then there was the occasion last year, when I made the mistake of going to Berlin Schönefeld airport before having breakfast, and I have to admit things got a little hairy as I searched for something to eat that would be more substantial than a chocolate bar. There was plenty of gluten – lots of baguettes and randomly, pasta salads – but as one of the rising number of poor sods with food intolerances, the airport is a stressful place when your blood sugar is dropping.

In the end I found a Burger King, and as I placed my order with shaking hands didn’t even care that it would mean an end to my 15 year streak of successfully avoiding junk food chains. I might have been fresh from a week in Berlin, where I ate endless plates of excellent food, but I remember that sad chicken salad as one of the most gratifying meals of my life.

To be clear, I’m not asking for sympathy for having to eat junk food here – I know there are real problems in the world. But I can’t help but ask: why does airport food have to be so miserable? The bread is always dry, the salad is always limp, the coffee is always burnt, and it’s always a little more expensive than you’re comfortable with.

In fairness to the people running airport food establishments, it’s actually a really tricky thing to do. There’s not a lot of space for storage or specialist equipment, which limits the menu. Security restrictions can mean knives need to be attached to the wall. Everything that you bring in has to be screened, and there may be limitations on the times when food can be brought in at all, meaning it may not be fresh.

Some airports won’t allow gas ovens, meaning everything has to be done with electric heat. The place is busy and frantic and every customer is constantly in a hurry, meaning speed takes precedence over quality. And ultimately there’s not that much competition within the airport, meaning you only have to be the least bad option. You don’t really rely on repeat trade anyway.

For a discerning traveller, the solution is usually to pack your own snacks ahead of going to the airport. You can bring pretty much any food through security as long as you adhere to the liquids restrictions (be careful with anything with a pudding consistency), and finish things like fruit or meat before you land at a destination that may have food restrictions.

But having said that, there’s one city where you can rock up at the airport without as much as a packet of nuts in your pocket and you’ll be fine – and that is London. The move towards a better eating experience started in earnest with the opening of the hotly anticipated Heathrow Terminal 5 in 2008, where an ambition to “put the glamour back into flying” meant including a restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay,a novel idea at the time, as well as inviting in more upmarket chains like Carluccio’s, Wagamama and Apostrophe.

In the decade that followed, the city’s other airports have followed suit. And, slowly but surely, London airports managed to escape this global bad food curse. There’s always something nice enough to eat no matter which London airport you go to.

There are, for example, 11 options for getting food after the security gate at Heathrow Terminal 2. If you just want a sandwich there’s an Eat and a Caffe Nero, if you want something nicer there’s Heston Blumenthal’s The Perfectionists' Café. Or, if you’re like me and want something quick but substantial, there’s a Leon and a Yo! Sushi.

They may be serving the food at a slight sprint at the Nando’s at Gatwick Airport (South terminal, after security), and it may not be what you’d have chosen to eat in the city – but it’s undoubtedly head and shoulders better than a pre-packed sandwich from WHSmith. Airport food in London could always be better of course, but just wait for your return flight from wherever you’re going: you’ll soon remember that it’s usually far, far worse.


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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