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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.