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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

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