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.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.