Five US Airports Doing Great Things with Concessions (Guest Post)

Getting back to speed with a new baby in the house isn’t easy, so I’m posting one more guest post today to help me catch up. (Besides, I need time to read through all the American Airlines changes as well as the FAA reauthorization bill for posts next week.) This one is from a familiar face . . .


My frenemie Brett “Cranky Flier” Snyder begged me (ok, he just asked) to write a guest post for his tiny, insignificant blog. Normally, I would have just ignored Brett’s email (which I do 98.7% of the time). But he and his lovely wife delivered my baby avgeek niece or nephew, so I relented.

I had one of the best jobs in the world – airports and security editor for Aviation Week magazine. That, along with being a judge the past four years for Airports Council International-North America’s annual concessions contest and my extensive world travels going back to when I was 5, has given me a fine appreciation of what I like to see in airports when it comes to concessions.

I’m old enough to remember the days when airport concessions consisted of “Newstand,” “Restaurant,” “Snack Bar” and “Gifts.” but oh, how times have changed!! This change has come for two reasons.

One, as airlines have merged and cut routes and frequencies, they are paying airports less in landing fees and rent. Two, because of post-9/11 security changes, travelers are spending more time in airports, and they’re demanding more sophisticated food/beverage and retail options. So below are my five picks for airports doing great things with their concessions programs.

  • Portland International Airport – This is a rare airport, in that they don’t contract with a big concession operator like HMS Host or Delaware North to handle their concessions. They use their own in-house team to come up with what I think is a near-perfect mix of local/regional and national brands. On the food side, they including the Laurelwood Brewing Co., Pizza Schmizza, Starbucks, and Panda Express. On the concessions side, there’s the iconic Powell’s Books, Columbia Sportswear, and The Oregonian news stand.
  • San Francisco International Airport – I’ve had the chance to see my original hometown airport evolve over the years, and I love the changes. Among its treasures, this airport has a full-service medical clinic and a world-class art museum. As I write this, I haven’t been to the new Terminal 2, so nothing in there is in this post. But great food options abound: Andale Mexican Restaurant, Boudin’s Bakery and Café, Tomokazu and Peet’s Coffee. Retail options are U Threads (sells clothing and items from Bay Area universities), Aviator Books, Coach, and Ghiradelli.
  • Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – This has always been one of my favorite airports because of features like free Wi-Fi, two pet parks, and one of the first cell phone lots in the country. Terminal 4 (home to Southwest Airlines and US Airways) has some great food choices: Blue Burrito Grille (restaurant and carry-out), Paradise Bakery and Café, Einstein Bagels and Quiznos. On the retail side, check out A to Z Kids, In Celebration of Golf, and See’s Candies.
  • Chicago Midway Airport – I have actually scheduled some of my Southwest Airlines trips to go through Midway because I love the shopping options there. The main concessions area has an actual sense of place. Food choices include Harry Caray’s, Nuts on Clark (I’d kill for this popcorn), Ben & Jerry’s, and McDonalds. Available retail choices are House of Blues, Discover Chicago, and Kids Works.
  • Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport – I did an insider’s tour of this facility a few years ago and had a grand time. This is a very passenger-focused airport, with concessions including free Samsung lounges (with seats, outlets and Wi-Fi) and the giant Shop 24 vending machine that sells everything from diapers to Caesar salads. I’m also a big fan of the La Bodega Winery, Cereality Breakfast Bar, Dunkin Donuts, and Au Bon Pain. Retail options include my beloved Bijoux Terner (everything is $10!), Natalie’s Candy Jar, Official Dallas Cowboys Pro Shop, and Bose.


I appreciate Brett allowing me to blog on one of my favorite topics. You can follow my musings over at AviationQueen.com and follow me on Twitter at @AvQueenBenet.


46 Responses to Five US Airports Doing Great Things with Concessions (Guest Post)

  1. Chris says:

    With all due respect, no wonder the food at most airports is so bad if your idea of ‘sophisticated’ includes Dunkin Donuts, Au Bon Pain, McDonalds, Quiznos, Panda Express etc etc. Wow

  2. Brad says:

    Ouch, Austin-Bergstrom gets the diss. No worries, we keep it Wierd.

    • Brad: I’m with you. I was at AUS after I wrote this post. I’m still dreaming about the Salt Lick BBQ and Amy’s Ice Cream! It will *definitely* be in my next list.

  3. Brad says:

    I whole heartedly agree with Portland Int’l, but am surprised not to see Austin-Bergstrom!

    Love the concessions and all-round environment of that airport. By far my favorite terminal in the Lone Star State.

  4. “””””….because of post-9/11 security changes, travelers are spending more time in airports,”””””

    Now that is sad but true. In the ‘old’ days the people that used airport vendors most may have been the family/friends who were taking someone to the airport or picking them up. Back when anyone could go to the gate area, family/friends who check out the stores after or before someones flight. Maybe a long connection fo/from and international flight a passenger would use a vendor.

    Now for the most part its only a passenger in the airport and because of horror stories about TSA and security, they have to plan to arrive 2 hours or more ahead of time just to take a one hour flight so those people are now finding they have more time to waste past security before their flight.

    While it may be easier to buy food as a big chain place, having a true local product can be more enjoyable.

    • Lynda says:

      I do not miss the pre-911 US airports at all! The gates and terminals were always so crowded and hard to get through, especially when getting off the plane! It really perplexed me and my co-workers as Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, where I worked/travelled to prior to 911 did not allow the public through to the gates – it was a big security risk in the US I always thought.

  5. It seems that EVERYONE wants the same thing in airport concessions: “street” (non-inflated) prices and a nice mix between local brands and national chains. I would think this is a no-brainer strategy to implement unless, I guess, the airport authority gets greedy and wants a higher percentage cut from a solo operator charging extortionate prices.

    My least favorite airport in this regard is LAX. I sometimes connect there on the way to Hawaii, which if you’re flying coach means two long foodless flights. It would be nice to be able to grab a decent meal at a fair price. Unfortunately, that’s not possible at LAX.

    • FRANK says:

      Thank god, they have an employee cafeteria in SFO. Seriously, a sandwich in SFO costs over 12 bucks in the terminal. No side, no drink included. Crazy!

    • Wayne-I’m with you on LAX, although I do read they are trying to upgrade their concessions. And Frank, SFO can be pricey, but you have to admit they have a great selection for passengers.

  6. No honorable mention for Pittsburgh? They were one of the pioneers, no?

    • FRANK says:

      Ghost town. That airport has some 30 flights total for the day.

    • Fred says:

      I agree that PIT has some decent options, but nothing too special like PDX or a few others.

      Seattle is also near the top of my list for having decent food overall (Ivar’s anyone?)

      • Ivar’s is overrated… But at least its a local.. (Along with Starbucks..)

        Seattle has much better Seafood to offer at the same price point than Ivars.. If you’re on the waterfront make sure to check out Steamers Seafood Cafe

    • Dear Canuck: you are correct about PIT. But I had to limit myself to five!

  7. Sanjeev M says:

    DTW has done a great job in both terminals with decently priced concessions, and importantly for me, vegetarian options. IAH also has fairly decent options, although overpriced.

    Internationally, Heathrow T5 is great for shopping but kinda low on decent food options.

    The other big thing is that airlines have cut free inflight food, so more travelers buy their food in the terminal. However, my guess is that it’s not enough to offset the loss of non-traveler purchases pre 9/11.

  8. Jan Ross says:

    This is really helpful since we will be in Phoenix in a couple of weeks. Thanks!

    • FRANK says:

      Food Court is before security which is a good thing. But, again, prices are high in PHX. I’ve tried the Paradise/Bakery place, great sandwiches (made to order). And, the food choices near the gates are packed with long lines. Short connection time, forget-about-it.

      • BW says:

        if you can swing it go to El Bravo just past security on the southwest end (across from the A security checkpoint). If you are on US Airways, you can walk down past the B concourse (or tip a cart guy to take you) and take the bridge across to Southwest. Then you have to trek back up to the other end.

  9. Jason H says:

    Having just banged my head against the wall of crap that is food in ATL I’d like to also see a list of the 5 airports doing the worst in this.

    As to airports doing well I wish more would take a note from these 5 and SEA as well. Not everything at SEA is great, but it is better than average I think. Too many airports just stick the usual fare in and leave it at that. DEN seems to be very, very, very slowly coming around, but now that they are spending $500 million on a terminal hotel and train station I doubt they’ll do much to improve the fare inside.

    • Ryan says:

      I agree. SEA has a lot nicer options than before, especially with the central terminal opening. From Wolfgang Puck in Terminal C, to a wine bar in the central area, there are some good choices. I also agree about DEN. I worked there for a year and lived in Colorado for 6. There isn’t one restaurant in that place that I’d recommend to anyone. All are pretty bland and what I don’t like the most is that the central areas in all 3 terminals almost all look the same. Do we really need a McDonald’s in every terminal?

    • Sanjeev M says:

      I think ATL is upgrading its food concessions, in terminals D and E at least. I mean its so huge there’s bound to be something bad.

    • Jason-ATL is in the process of upgrading its concessions. There are a few places there that are pretty good, like Atlanta Bread Company and Paschals. I also agree that SEA is better than most. Sometimes I hate doing these because there are so mnay good examples out there. And thanks for the blog post idea — I will name names and out the five worst soon.

      • Jason H says:

        I see there are some upgrades at ATL when I read the concourse maps, but in my 4 visits to ATL so far this year I’ve only seen T, A, and C. Those, for whatever reason, seem to be the dregs of the food world in ATL.

  10. Todd says:

    You forgot the best thing about PDX: the Port of Portland requires that vendors charge the same prices as they do at their non-airport locations. When I lived in Portland, I would actually make a point of showing up early for flights, so I could eat at the airport (reasonable prices + good food!). Needless to say, I did not do that when I lived in LA (inflated prices + disgusting Chili’s Too!).

  11. Dale says:

    I see you mentioned Chicago Midway but you failed to mention Potbellys. Potbellys is my favourite airport eating place and I like to have connections at MDW long enough to eat there.

    • Dale-I love Potbelly’s. I discovered that it’s actually based in Chicago. I’m also told that if you call in your order, it will be waiting for you to pick up! I was so happy when we got one in my hometown airport BWI.

  12. TH says:

    PHX, really? I connect through PHX at least once a week and it’s a run-down dump. Outside security it’s fabulous – clean, updated, nice shopping, decent restaurants and cool traveling museum displays, but once you’re behind the wall – ugh! Be prepared for a long hike between gates, if you’re not lucky enough to have them side by side and a mediocre selection of fast food (Burger King, Pizza Hut Express). Yes, there are a couple of restaurants by the gates but it’s the typical tri-fold menu with 10 choices total. The only gem is the Blue Burrito Grille, but be prepared for a long wait. Word to the wise – do your shopping/eating BEFORE you go through security!!!

    • Todd says:

      Agreed. Blue Burrito Grille is okay, but otherwise it’s uninspiring national chain restraunts galore. Also, it’s pretty much impossible to find seating at any restaurant in PHX when US has a wave of connections passing through. Space is too cramped.

  13. Jason says:

    You forgot the best restaurant at PDX: Gustav’s! Nothing like scoring some schnitzel and fondu before you board for a long flight.

  14. Al B says:

    All hail the Queen! AUS has the Salt Lick barbecue … I stop there coming and going. Total agreement on PDX: My best TSA experience ever was lugging two dozen Voodoo Doughnuts (you have to buy them in town) through there … they were all in a good mood and joked about confiscation. No takers, though, when I opened a box and offered them around.

    • TH says:

      (tongue in cheek) Al, surprised they didn’t actually confiscate them!! You know what happened to the girl that tried to get her cupcake through security!! Those Voodoo donuts are fantastic :)

  15. First-thanks for all the comments. I just love how active you all are.

  16. MeanMeosh says:

    DFW is hit-or-miss, depending on exactly where you are. There are some great local spots like Cool River, Cantina Laredo, and Pappasito’s, and you have the unique local shops like the Dallas Cowboys store and Fossil. On the other hand, Terminal B used to have only the usual junk like Chili’s Too. At least with the new SkyTrain, you can zip over to where the cool stuff is (read: Terminal D) if you have enough time.

    I also have to give a shout out to AUS. Amy’s Ice Cream alone makes me look for excuses to plan a biz trip to Austin.

    HOU is also not so bad, if you’re in to the Pappas cartel (Pappadeaux, Pappa’s Burger, Pappasito’s, etc.). Then again, given that the Pappas brand is an institution in Houston, it’s pretty appropriate.

  17. kaszeta says:

    A minor detail that makes a huge difference at MDW: Reilly’s Daughter (the bar), lets you get drinks to go.

    So I saunter over to either potbelly (for a sandwich) or Gold Coast (for a hot Italian beef), then over to Reilly’s, and then take my beer and my sandwich to my gate.

  18. For once in my life, my timing is superb. I will be flying SMF to PDX in the morning.

    Good food and microbrew beer…I may never leave the airport.

  19. Oh, I wish our airports in the Eastern side of Europe would be so cool… I do not even know which of the above I would like to see the most. Maybe San Francisco Intl. because I like the city so much and am curious about the art gallery… But the rest also sound cool…

  20. Lynda says:

    Too bad on a North American list of airports that YVR was not mentioned! I find Vancouver, BC the most beautiful and relaxing airport on the continent – having been in over 100 of them. Nothing like walking through the pathways in the ceiling and seeing native carvings and art displayed. Then decending into customs with a huge waterfall behind you with more native carvings displayed. A remarkable and refreshing experience after a long flight.

    I concur with PDX – I really think they have done a great job over the years in keeping it up and current.

    As for pre-911 and in the US with the public in the terminals and at the gates – it was horrible getting off planes and having to get through the mob. It always perplexed me and my co-workers and fellow road warriors why this was allowed as in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, it is not the case. We always thought in the US it was a security risk at times.

  21. Lynda says:

    Too bad on a North American list of airports that YVR was not mentioned! I find Vancouver, BC the most beautiful and relaxing airport in the world – having been in over 100 of them. Nothing like walking through the pathways in the ceiling and seeing native carvings and art displayed. Then decending into customs with a huge waterfall behind you with more native carvings displayed. A remarkable and refreshing experience after a long flight.

    I concur with PDX – I really think they have done a great job over the years in keeping it up and current.

    As for pre-911 and in the US with the public in the terminals and at the gates – it was horrible getting off planes and having to get through the mob. It always perplexed me and my co-workers and fellow road warriors why this was allowed as in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, it is not the case. We always thought in the US it was a security risk at times.

  22. A bit late to this party, but SFO? Really? Terminal 1 is terrible. There are 2 (maybe 3) restaurants inside security and you pay over $10 for a crappy deli sandwich. A Peets you say? And that is supposed to make it good? The Asian / Mexican / German Sports bar thing scares me so much I wont even try to eat there. The international terminal and T2 may be awesome, but if you are connecting domestically in T1 you are screwed when it comes to food.
    You should look at the entire airport, not just the flashy things that are reported in the news.

  23. Kilroy says:

    I don’t know the name of it, but at LGA there is a great little bar/short-order place at the far end of the terminal Delta uses (Terminal D?) that offers some great beers- not a huge selection, but they have some good ones from Belgium, lesser known craft beers from the US, etc etc, and prices are fair. Great way to burn time if you get to the airport early.

  24. Ron says:

    Another airport with reasonable, street prices for concessions is BWI.

  25. Briana says:

    I visited Nuts on Clark when I was on a stopover at Chicago Midway. They sell the most delicious chocolate covered and honey roasted nuts?I think I bought 3 bags of different types because there was a bundle discount. There was also a cozy sit-down bar and restaurant that I enjoyed with my traveling buddies. I do not recall the name, but I do remember memorabilia and old photographs on the walls. Personally, I would have added Newark Liberty International because of their variety of coffee and breakfast options. Such stores include Abica Coffee, Dunkin Donuts, Jamba Juice and Market Fresh are full of great breakfast foods and healthy options. I can enjoy a coffee, bagel and some fruit anytime of the day, so these concessions are right up my alley. Thanks for the blog post!

  26. Brian says:

    Benet – I am the manager of the Pizza Schmizza at PDX, and wanted to thank you for the mention and kudos not only of our establishment, but PDX concessions as a whole! It’s great to be in an environment and with a group of people that care as much as we do, and we hear it from passengers and other guests constantly. Free WiFi, street pricing (same price inside the airport as outside the airport), and that great mix of local and national. Thanks again for noticing what’s going on in our sleepy little nook of the world!

    • gary says:

      Just have to agree with the compliments for PDX. I travel a lot and Portland Int’l is one of my favorites. The inexpensive food, beer and wine selections are amazing compared to any airport in the U.S. Powell’s Books is always a highlight and I am impressed with the clean, carpeted, calming blue/green colors with the interesting sculptures in the concourses. Walking outside of the baggage claim and right into a light rail train is more like Europe than most US airports. The parking structures are really convenient with their electronic signs showing you the most convenient, available parking. And the ease and speed of check in and security was also a welcome change from many other airports. Kudos to Portland for doing it right.

  27. Gary says:

    Nice post which One, as airlines have merged and cut routes and frequencies, they are paying airports less in landing fees and rent. Two, because of post-9/11 security changes, travelers are spending more time in airports, and they?re demanding more sophisticated food/beverage and retail options. Thanks a lot for posting.

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