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.

 
 
 
 

TfL published some tables about Tube Capacity and they are amazing

Budge up. Image: Getty.

Have you ever wondered just how busy the tube is as you’re sardined in every morning? Or which the quietest tube line is in the depths of night?

Well it turns out that Transport for London (TfL) holds this data and quietly released it a few weeks ago in response to a written question to Sadiq Khan from Conservative London Assembly member Tony Devenish. He asked about the capacity on the tube and TfL decided to publish the data it has in the form of three excellent tables which I’m sure the audience of CityMetric will be poring over for some time.

So, most of this won’t be a surprise to many of you veteran commuters: trains being at or over capacity in the morning peak, busy again in the evening peak with a solid use through the rest of the day. However, the data does throw up some interesting nuggets of information about how busy the tube actually is.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

One of the most surprising aspects is how busy the tube remains throughout the day. The Central Line in particular is at 66 per cent capacity from the moment the first train runs and doesn’t dip below 35 per cent throughout the rest of the day, even those late-night services past midnight. Indeed, all of the deep level lines are pretty well used all day.

In the morning peak between 8-9am, the 130 per cent capacity on the Northern Line will be a surprise to nobody, but that is nevertheless very high. The note underneath states that this was calculated this on the basis of standing at a density of 4 people per square metre, so 130 per cent is having 5 and a bit people in just a square metre, again something many of us are familiar with. The Central, Jubilee and Victoria Lines are also above 100 per cent, but it’s interesting to note the jump from 15 per cent to 82 per cent on the Waterloo & City (W&C) Line from 6-8am.

Compare that with just how quiet the Metropolitan and W&C are throughout the day and late at night. A grand total of no one uses the W&C before 6am (it isn’t open), with only 4 per cent using it after midnight. The other sub-surface lines are also relatively quiet after 9pm.

The other trend is the slight increase in use after 10pm on the Bakerloo, Central and Piccadilly Lines. This happens after the commuters go home by 8pm, so the usage dips before bouncing back. It is most likely due to more people making their way home after their evenings out in central London, but an interesting point.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

The second table shows when capacity is over 50 per cent. Again, the Central Line is the busiest with 10 hours a day over half capacity, including before 6am, and the Northern remains busy until 9pm on a typical weekday.

However, the table shows the tube is only more than half full just 35 per cent of the time – something to remember when you’re crammed in at 8:34am. It would be interesting to see if the increase in flexible working has had an impact in recent years. And if you do work flexibly, you should get a quieter commute the earlier or later you head in – just avoid 8-9am.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

The third table shows if all of the seats are taken on the tube. Amazingly they are all taken 71 per cent of the time, and are all taken all day on the Central, Jubilee and Victoria Lines. Again, the Metropolitan is your best bet for a seat, with seats being available for 14 hours a day. The W&C offers a seat for that short journey for 13 hours a day.


How might we expect these tables to change in the next few years? Well TfL recently announced it was extending the morning and evening peaks on the Victoria Line to three hours, with a train every 100 seconds, so those figures could drop. Also, the Four Lines Modernisation programme will see increased service on the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan Lines from 2023, so again TfL will be hoping for those numbers to drop as more trains become available. It will also be interesting to see this table once the Elizabeth Line Crossrail opens.

Thinking further ahead, when the New Tube for London rolling stock upgrade progamme finally arrives from the middle of the next decade onwards, it’ll mean more trains on the Piccadilly and Central Lines initially, followed by the Bakerloo (which could be extended) and W&C. But with population growth expected to continue in London, will it make much of a difference to these tables? Probably not.

Now, to find out what this table would look like for Night Tube, Overground, DLR and Trams…

James Potts tweets @JamesPotts.