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Airport dining gets upgraded with high-profile names

P.F. Chang's opening at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.
Source: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International | Facebook
P.F. Chang's opening at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.

This holiday weekend travelers can stop in for a bite to eat at Dylan's Candy Bar, P.F. Chang's or Bubbles Seafood & Wine Bar.

Not at the mall, but at the airport.

A spate of recent airport ribbon-cuttings for high-profile dining and snack outlets was spurred by changing tastes of travelers, airlines' decision to pay less for services at the airports and turnover of competitive concession contracts.

Just this week, the first airport branch of P.F. Chang's opened at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world's busiest passenger airport. The airport also celebrated the opening of a food court featuring branches of three local brands, including Piece of Cake, serving cupcakes and other decadent desserts.

"Our concession program is nearly finished with opening 152 new restaurants," said ATL spokesman Reese McCranie, "and each one has a strong reputation for top-notch food and service."

At San Diego International Airport, which recently opened a greatly expanded Terminal 2 West, the line-up of new dining outlets includes Bubbles Seafood & Wine Bar, Seaside Stack Shack, Stone Brewing Co. and the first Jack in the Box to open in an airport.

(Read more:Greener terminal lands at San Diego airport)

This week, SAN opened the doors of an airport branch of Phil's BBQ, a popular local favorite.

"The Airport Authority worked very hard to make sure that when people land at our airport, they know they've landed in San Diego," said Katie Jones, spokesperson for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. "That meant bringing in the local flavors that make our city unique: San Diego's Thai, BBQ, craft beers, wine bars and local coffee establishments are now available in our airport."

Among the reasons for the shift is travelers' changing tastes.

"You'll still see the national brands such as McDonald's at many airports, but LAX, BWI, Phoenix, Minneapolis and, hopefully, soon the Chicago airports and the airport in Fort Lauderdale are incorporating a great many high-profile local and national brands," said Ramon Lo, editorial director of Airport Revenue News.

(Read more: Where to find airport Wi-Fi for free or for a fee)

Air travelers are also becoming more sophisticated and savvy consumers, said Ellery Plowman, owner of airport concessions consulting firm Elleco.

"They are demanding choices: They want the standard hamburger from McDonald's, Wendy's or Burger King when they have the family; they want a hip gourmet build-your-own hamburger when they have a meeting; and they want a slider in an elegant oasis when they are alone."

The march of new, memorable munchies at airports isn't limited to the main meals.

Food sales at Top 50 performing airports

2012 $3,444,460,384
2011 $3,192,312,280
2010 $3,019,229,572
2009 $3,186,472,656
2008 $3,053,600,082
Source: Airport Revenue News

Top 5 North American airports in 2012

Hartsfield-Jackson
Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
$250,916,408
Chicago O'Hare International (ORD) $230,859,881
Los Angeles International LAX $184,069,896
Dallas Fort Worth
International Airport (DFW)
$165,865,259
Denver International (DEN) $169,021,745
Source: Airport Revenue News

Last week self-sustaining Detroit Metropolitan Airport celebrated the opening of the first airport branch of Dylan's Candy Bar. That might not only fatten passengers' waistlines, but the airport's bottom line.

(Read more: Worst airports for connections)

"Having the very first airport venue for a fun and popular brand such as Dylan's is directly in line with our strategy to generate important revenue by offering customers the kind of cool stuff they want to buy while traveling," said airport spokesperson Scott Wintner.

With airlines cutting back on what they're willing—or able—to pay airports, non-aeronautical revenue has become increasingly important. According to Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA,) food revenue at airports now ranks third in non-aeronautical revenue, after parking and retail/duty-free.

"Airports recognize that when passengers are provided a variety of restaurant options, revenues go up and so does passenger satisfaction, which is key," said Debbie McElroy, ACI-NA interim president.

That's why she says airports are getting competitive about snagging the first branch of a popular or unusual food venue. And not just in cities where passengers have multiple airport options, such as a New York and Washington.

"There may be a restaurant that I particularly like or want to try and that may entice me to make my connection through a particular airport," said McElroy.

—By CNBC Contributor Harriet Baskas. She is the author of seven books, including Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You, and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.

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