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The Airport Restaurant Pricing Scam

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For this month’s installment of “Fly&Dine Tuesday,” a series that explores the intersection of food and travel, TPG Contributor (and expert food writer) Jason Kessler of Fly&Dine explores the shadowy world of airport restaurant pricing. 

We pay extra for just about everything when it comes to traveling. When we book our tickets, we’re paying more to buy them over the phone and even more if we have to change our flights. On airplanes themselves, we’re shelling out for extra legroom seats and the privilege of having our luggage ride along in the cargo bay.

At airports, we pay for access to lounges and priority boarding (unless you’re smartly following The Points Guy’s tips to earn elite status), but the hardest fee to swallow is the ridiculous price we pay for eating at the airport. We don’t pay different prices at McDonald’s based on its address outside of airports, so why are we putting up with surcharges on our Big Macs after we get through the security line?

If you're hungry while stuck at LAX, you can save a bundle just by leaving the airport and heading to the nearby In-and-Out Burger. Photo courtesy of LAX on Facebook.
Hungry while stuck at LAX? Save a bundle by leaving the airport and heading to the nearby In-N-Out. Photo courtesy of LAX on Facebook.

According to a survey by the Airport Council International-North America, 49% of the airports in the United States charge more just because you’re eating at the airport. It’s the same insulting price-gouging that occurs at stadiums and concert venues — and the worst part is, we don’t have much of a choice. Sure, you can choose to stay home from that Taylor Swift show, but if you’ve got a flight from JFK to PDX with a layover in LAX, you don’t really have any alternatives (unless you brought a snack, have access to an airline lounge or leave the airport to go over to In-N-Out). You’re stuck paying a whopping 18% extra just because your journey took you to the City of Angels — and that’s officially not fair.

Photo courtesy of Portland International Airport on Facebook
Photo courtesy of Portland International Airport on Facebook

It’s not all bad news, though. While the majority of airports use this “Street Plus” pricing model, 43% require their food and beverage tenants to charge the same prices at the airport as they do landside. The Pacific Northwest seems to be especially good in this regard. At PDX, street prices have been in effect since the mid-’80s, making them true pioneers in terms of US airport restaurant pricing. “For us, street pricing is the right thing to do,” says PDX airport spokesperson Kama Simonds. “Travelers are happy, they are eating good meals and purchasing quality products — all while paying a fair price.”

Photo courtesy of SEA-TAC International Airport on Facebook
Photo courtesy of SEA-TAC International Airport on Facebook

The same can be said about Seattle’s SEA-TAC Airport, where flyers have been enjoying street pricing since 2004. Deanna Zachrisson, Manager of Concessions Management at SEA-TAC, says there’s actually a major benefit to keeping prices level with the outside world. “The greatest positive effect of street pricing is a traveler’s willingness to incrementally spend more,” she says. “For example, if a latte is $3, a traveler may choose to purchase a muffin with their latte — which he might not do if the latte cost $3.30.”

I’m not an economist, so I can’t dig deep into theories about markets setting prices, location variability, etc. What I do know is that I get legitimately mad when I see a menu at an airport and the prices are noticeably higher than what I can pay on the outside. With all of those extra fees we’re already used to paying, wouldn’t it be nice to see a little price break when it comes to dining at airports? That’s why I say that the airport food pricing scam needs to stop and it needs to stop right now. If major airports like PDX and SEA-TAC can do it successfully, so can everyone else.

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