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The Future of Airport Dining Is Now

Terminals across the country are being outfitted with iPads, have ample bars and restaurants, and offer the option to pay for your food with your airline miles.

Gone are the days of dimly lit gate areas with rows of well-worn seats and a trio of awkwardly placed power outlets for 120 people to share. No longer should we suffer through wilted salads and $12 cafeteria-style sandwiches. The good news? Airports around the country are sprucing up their acts—and in some surprising places, too. Minneapolis/St. Paul, Newark, and New York JFK are among the terminals setting the trend for airport dining and the future of travel.

It goes beyond the decadent menus of favored airport posts such as Atlanta’s One Flew South in concourse E (long a customer favorite for its mix of flavors like burgers and sushi) and Cat Cora’s Kitchen of Iron Chef fame, which is popping up in airports, including Atlanta, Houston Bush Intercontinental, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Some domestic terminals are offering an entirely new and convenient twist when it comes to preflight dining, and frequent fliers stand to benefit.

This more comfortable approach to air travel is the brainchild of companies like dining and retail management firm OTG (the second largest operator of airport restaurants), which has spent more than $50 million to pioneer the use of iPads in airport terminals so travelers can order food from their seats (whether at the gate or in a restaurant). The information is then transmitted via iOS to chefs in kitchens to prepare the food and send it back via servers (all of whom carry iPod Touch devices to alert them when food is ready) to wherever customers are. Purchases are made with the swipe of a credit card, or in the case of some United hub airports, with frequent flier miles.

Check out this handful of cities with airport enhancements in the works.

Newark Liberty International Airport
United enlisted OTG to overhaul the gate areas and retail venues in terminal C to the tune of a capital investment of $120 million. With nearly 6,000 iPads placed in 60 gate areas and restaurants, there is no need to go far to order food or drink. Travelers can also track their flights, surf the Internet, play games for free prizes from nearby stores, or read the news while they wait.

And forget chain eateries. The terminal now has everything from a French bistro with raw seafood bars (so popular, there are two) to gourmet markets and counters for freshly rolled sushi, all at street-level prices ranging from fair to splurge-worthy. You’d be forgiven if you thought this were a trendy shopping mall rather than major airport. More than 50 dining venues, crafted by nearly two dozen well-known chefs, are destined for EWR within the coming year.

Check out the redesigned C108 gate area that replaces rows of seats with a café-style setup where travelers can surf the web or order food using the iPads. This is the future of air travel. There’s even a tempting bar cart from which drinks can be ordered. And, if boarding is imminent, an alert pops up to let you know there might not be enough time to receive and consume your food and drink.

Even better, United is the first airline to allow travelers to use frequent flier miles to pay for food and drinks, and it’s a good value, too. Miles are generally viewed as being worth a penny a piece. Fancy the 12-oz. New York Strip Steak that sells for $36 at Alain Ducasse’s Saison? It can be yours for 4,120 miles; not bad. Prefer filet mignon? It’s 5,370 miles (or $47).

Philadelphia International Airport
The City of Brotherly Love is showing some affection to terminal B, again under the influence of OTG, with the installation of 1,000 iPads in 15 redesigned gate areas giving passengers access to entertainment and the Internet, plus the ability to order food to their seat from nearby restaurants. The terminal will also get eight new specialty restaurants featuring the talents of local Philadelphia chefs. The rollout is the first of its type in an American Airlines hub and is expected to take two years to complete, although paying for your food and drinks with miles is not yet an option.

Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport
Another United hub gets lucky with retrofits coming to its B South, C, and E terminals. Yes, that means you can pay for gourmet fare with United miles soon. Use miles to nosh at chef Monica Pope’s locally inspired panini bar or enjoy chef John Nguyen’s Cajun-Vietnamese fusion flavors before your flight.

Mileage redemptions for food are an especially good bargain for travelers who may not earn enough miles for a free flight anytime soon. Might as well redeem them for gourmet food!

Elite-level fliers may also receive special offers or surprise-and-delight amenities like a free appetizer on occasion. This unique program would be the first to tie together loyalty program recognition with airport retail outlets.

Similar to Newark, OTG and United are testing unique partnerships that promote certain menu items to travelers (perhaps based upon destination or class of service on the plane). Because the iPads are collecting meaningful data, they can help restaurants, too. Chefs can predict how many steaks, for example, are ordered at various times on different days of the week. 

New York JFK
Delta was a pioneer in this realm, launching the iPad experience via OTG at JFK and LaGuardia. It is now in both terminals 2 and 4 at JFK where guests can indulge in chef Marcus Samuelsson’s chicken and waffles at Uptown Brasserie or Deep Blue Sushi at JetBlue’s terminal 5 at JFK. While awaiting a flight, customers can view their SkyMiles account, check email or social media, or watch the upgrade standby list dwindle while summoning a craft beer or steak and fries to their seat.

In the Delta Sky Club, fliers can redeem miles for premium drinks such as champagne or top-shelf liquor. The airline offers the option to redeem 100 miles per dollar spent at many of its clubs.

Minneapolis/St. Paul
This Midwestern hub is one of many to follow the “farm to terminal” movement serving up produce and ingredients purchased from local farmers’ markets at various restaurants. And yes, you can use iPads to order these dishes at outlets like Mill City Tavern within the terminal.

Let’s not forget that travelers can earn miles in their preferred loyalty program by signing up with Thanks Again, which doles out miles at many of these very restaurants and stores just for spending money there.

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