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Your wait for coffee or food at some airports could finally get shorter

June 04, 2022
9 min read
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At airports nowadays, it's not unusual to wait 25 minutes in line for a cup of coffee or something to eat (or to just rely on the airline’s pretzels to hold you over until you reach your destination). Those who have traveled in the last year probably noticed that when it comes to food and drinks in the airport, the return to "normal" has not been without a few bumps.

Getting back up and running after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge nearly every industry has faced, particularly when it comes to staffing. Even pilots and ground crews, who are the backbone of airline operations, aren't immune.

However, inside airport terminals, the problems have manifested in the form of continued closures of some food, drink and shopping spots or, more commonly, not being open full hours. Since travel began to rebound in the spring of 2021, the trend has led to fewer options for travelers and longer lines at the places that are open.

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Travelers wait in line at the Denver International Airport (DEN) food court in 2020. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

There are signs, though, that this could change. Some airports are trying to ensure they do, just as the Transportation Security Administration is regularly screening more than 2 million passengers per day — a seismic shift from the few hundred thousand the agency saw this time two years ago and far above 2021 numbers.

Businesses back open ... generally

At many of the largest airports in the U.S., most restaurants and retailers are open again from the total closures experienced in the earliest days of the pandemic. There aren't too many locations still closed.

In this May 2020 photo, stores were closed inside the terminal at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

According to data airports shared with TPG, Denver International Airport (DEN) reported 100% of locations open, with nearly 95% of businesses open in Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), 93% in Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and nearly 90% in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s airports, which include Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and LaGuardia Airport (LGA).

Related: Avoiding long lines at the airport and during your travels

There's a difference between a business reopening from a full shutdown and operating at full, pre-pandemic hours and at full strength, though.

A busy May 2022 morning inside the terminal at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT). (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) reported more than 80% of its businesses open as of late May. Yet the airport has run into problems with availability. Airport officials recently announced plans to patrol and surveil the terminals and potentially fine concessionaires not living up to their contracts, effective this month, TPG reported in May.

In Phoenix, the early morning and late-night hours continue to present particular challenges when it comes to businesses being open, airport officials explained at a public meeting last month.

In other words, you could be at the airport midday and there are plenty of places to get something to eat or drink. However, if you have a 5 a.m. flight or arrive at 11 p.m., you could run into trouble.

Phoenix isn't alone, either.

DEN officials, for instance, mentioned about 6% of its concessions are not operating at full contractual hours. LAX officials told TPG, “Not all concessions are operating full schedules compared with 2019,” while noting there are always options available for customers.

Similar to Phoenix, leaders at DFW just began enforcement efforts as well, having experienced similar challenges.

“We’re ready for business early in the morning," DFW executive vice president Ken Buchanan said in an interview with TPG. “Our challenge goes into the late evening hours.”

(Photo courtesy of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport)

Anticipating the surge for Memorial Day weekend travel, DFW officials saw Wednesday, May 25 — just prior to the holiday weekend — as a sort of "line in the sand" for concessionaires: a deadline to open — fully — in accordance with the terms of their contracts.

“We’ve gone through the last two, two-plus years supporting our concessionaires, being as flexible as we can,” Buchanan told TPG. “Now it’s time for us to get back to business ... which means we need to be open during normal hours.”

Travelers make their way through the terminal at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) in November 2021. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

As in Phoenix, DFW officials said there could be consequences for businesses not fully open. The airport will have "compliance specialists" patrolling the terminals in early morning and late-evening hours. Businesses found to be in violation could face a $500-per-day fine, with the potential for frequent violators to have their lease with the airport terminated.

“We don’t expect to implement any of those [consequences], but they’re available,” Buchanan said.

Related: Choosing the best lounge at DFW

Staffing still a problem

Of course, few businesses want to face the often-difficult decision to open late or close early.

Between staffing shortages and the continued impact COVID-19 quarantines can have on employee availability, staffing shortages across many industries have, at times, crippled operations.

In a May analysis, the National Restaurant Association pointed to Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing job openings between October 2021 and March 2022 outpaced hirings by half a million. This fueled a labor shortage the organization called “far and away the most severe on record.”

Hiring for restaurants can be an even greater challenge when it comes to airports, according to Phoenix airport officials, with the added inconvenience of navigating parking and going through security for a job that ultimately pays similarly to one out in the community.

DEN indicated that staffing “is the most common reason” locations might not be open full hours, while LAX pointed to the inability of some vendors to rehire staff to full capacity.

Nearly every airport TPG contacted mentioned recent job fairs it had hosted or supported to help vendors in need of people.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for instance, said it’s working closely with its partner companies to address the staffing issues and support hiring, all in hopes of ensuring staffing schedules “are aligned with travel volumes.”

An American Airlines aircraft taxis at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). (Photo courtesy of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport)

Looking ahead to a busy summer

As travel numbers rebound to more "normal" levels, Buchanan said the same might soon be said for businesses on DFW’s concourses, pointing to some businesses reopening after being closed for many months.

"You see activity back in the kitchen and in the storage areas which tells you, ‘OK, they’re getting ready,’” he told TPG.

That’s not to say every business has hired for every position.

Instead, airport leaders plan to continue working with businesses to make accommodations on the days when staffing might still be a challenge.

For instance, a restaurant that doesn’t have full staffing might not be able to accommodate a full dining room with a sit-down experience on one night. In that case, they would be expected to — at a minimum — still offer to-go food options “so that customers still have choices,” Buchanan explained.

Across the country, you can expect to see a lot more innovation, too.

DFW is joining the list of airports — New York and Los Angeles among them — with apps that allow customers to have food delivered right to your gate.

I can recall restaurants at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) and Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) where I had a sit-down meal in a terminal restaurant but placed my food and drink orders on a tablet. This cuts down on the number of trips the waitstaff has to make to a particular table.

“They want to be open,” Buchanan said of DFW’s businesses. “They want to be serving customers and they want to be generating sales.”

Related: 31 tips to keep your summer trip on track and on budget

Bottom line

After two-plus years of uncertainty brought on by a forever unpredictable COVID-19 situation, volatile passenger demand and lackluster staffing, some airports are beginning to put the pressure on their food and shopping vendors to not just reopen but to reopen to pre-pandemic hours.

Things likely won't change overnight, as hiring continues to be a point of concern for so many industries.

So in the meantime, if you’re hungry or thirsty while in an airport, your best friend may be your smartphone. Airports and airlines increasingly have on-the-go ordering options through their apps, and some businesses have order-ahead functions in place for airport locations; a mobile order probably saved me a 10-minute wait in a Starbucks line last month at Miami International Airport (MIA).

As with every aspect of summer 2022 travel, a little planning ahead combined with patience could be the key to making your trip as pain-free as possible.

Featured image by Long line for McDonalds at the airport (Photo by Edward Pizzarello/PizzaInMotion.com)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

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  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases