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Virtually every time I embark on a flight, I wonder about a recurring design feature present in many airports:

The publicly accessible area has a couple of stores and maybe some simpler places to grab some food (think some bakeries, maybe McDonald's or similar).

The secure area, on the other hand, especially in the departure area of the airport, tends to contain various fancy services. Even though their prices are a bit above the local average of the place, the restaurants seem really inviting to me. Just ...

I never find an opportunity to eat anything there.

Typically, the following restrictions pop up:

  • Check in and/or baggage drop-off only becomes possible around 3 hours before the scheduled departure.
  • Including queuing up, check-in takes at least 30 minutes.
  • Queuing up for and going through the security check takes another 30 to 45 minutes.
  • Depending on the size of the airport, the time to bridge the distance to the gate can take 15 to 30 more minutes.
  • For international flights, add 30 minutes for emigration procedures and the respective queues.
  • I'm supposed to show up at the gate some 30 minutes before departure, when boarding is about to start.

This leaves at most an hour in the secure area, which IMHO is too short for strolling around to pick a restaurant, order and have a complete meal, and do other pre-flight things like going to a bathroom, especially when travelling as a group or family).

I have observed this in a variety of airports now both in and outside of Europe.

Adding insult to injury is when the departure is scheduled for the early morning hours/late evening, and by the time you can enter the secure area, everything (even convenience stores) there is closed.

How are those restaurants and possible other facilities supposed to be used? Only in utmost hurry? Or are they just meant for those lucky enough to have a checked through connecting flight, so they might realistically be in the secure zone already a couple of hours in advance?

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    I think you have a very different experience compared most people. Check-in: you do it online (many people are flying for business, maybe just for few days, so no baggage). And you have "fancy" stuffs near the gate (e.g. in Europe and in other part of the world where airports are private, so much incentives to commercialize the waiting time). If you are a frequent flyer, you optimize the time. Shorter line. And as you say: there are also many people which has connecting flyings and delays. Sep 5, 2023 at 13:32
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    You're also completely ignoring transit passengers, many of whom have hours to kill at the airport waiting for their connecting flight. Sep 5, 2023 at 13:43
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    I often don't check a bag. I'm TSA-Pre so there is a short line, if any, for security. Planning time under my control (when I get to the airport) to eat a nice meal is better than hoping there is time at my connection to grab something not so nice.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 5, 2023 at 14:11
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    Over the last decade, my curbside-to-gate time -- at any of dozens of airports -- has only once been greater than an hour (in Mumbai). Few of your time estimates seem at all likely to me. Is it possible that most of your travel is family holiday travel during extremely popular travel days (e.g. around Christmas)?
    – Sneftel
    Sep 5, 2023 at 14:13
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    "prices are a bit above the local average" I'm not sure where you travel, but most airports I've been to realize they have a captive audience and I've found prices to be significantly above average! You're also missing business travelers who are on an expense account and may get a per diem that allows them to eat an expensive meal at a fancy restaurant at the airport - they may have gotten done with business meetings in mid-afternoon and have nothing to do until a later flight; can't stay at the client's office, that's awkward, so may as well head to the airport for only 1 taxi fare.
    – FreeMan
    Sep 5, 2023 at 22:07

4 Answers 4

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Many people with plenty of money to spend are skipping many of those delays. Eg they have priority checkin, priority security, etc because they bought an expensive ticket, have frequent flyer status, bought security priority, have a high-fee credit card with airport-speed benefits, and so on.

They have to arrive 2 or 3 hours before or the airline won't help them if they end up missing the flight, but they have an hour or two at the gate with nothing to do. They could get free food in the lounge, but a nice meal at a nice restaurant sounds like a better plan. They are usually travelling alone so they don't need to shepherd a pile of kids through a bathroom visit. I also know people who deliberately arrive a little earlier than they need to so they can have restaurant time. For example, you said you can't check in until 3 hours before, but then you took off a half hour wait to check in. Well, you could get to the airport 3.5 hours before so that after your wait, it's checkin time!

What's more, some people are in transit and they have 4 or 5 hour connections. They have plenty of time to spend airside, too.

Bottom line: restaurants that offer you a chance to sit somewhere quiet and eat something nice will get more takers the closer they are to the gate. If you're going to run such a thing, you won't get customers who don't yet know how long all those lineups are going to be for them. You may get some who had a quick process this time (your whole list is a bunch of "up to"s and even without status, priority, fast passes, clear etc etc, some days you don't have that wait) and decide to celebrate with a nice meal since they have some free time on this trip.

As for "everything in the secure area is closed" I have only seen that in Europe. I had a long connection very early in the morning in Zurich and it was super frustrating waiting for breakfast places to open. I couldn't even get coffee! But in the parts of North America I have been to, if there are people, there are establishments willing to sell them things. If you find everything closed, well I suppose that is happening at a time of day when most travelers are subject to those constraints, or for other reasons such as budget and patience, are not likely enough to use the restaurant's services to make it worthwhile keeping it open.

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    The everything is closed situation happens to me every time I am e.g. at Beijing's capital airport (in its various iterations over the years), as my flights to Europe from there typically leave after midnight. Sep 5, 2023 at 14:09
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    +1, however regarding "But in North America if there are people, there are establishments willing to sell them things." - I have had many flights with long connections in the US (usually domestic) where very few food options are open overnight (between 9pm and 5am I guess). Usually we end up at a "Hudson News" buying snacks rather than finding any hot food options available.
    – Midavalo
    Sep 5, 2023 at 14:48
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    Same experience as Midavalo. Flying in/out of smaller airports like ONT (California) or CMH (Columbus, Ohio), my 2 'home' airports, often have shops that close in the early evening so nothing's open if you're landing mid- to late evening.
    – mkennedy
    Sep 5, 2023 at 18:50
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    In North America, it’s very dependent on where you are. ATL, SFO, EWR, JFK, and other really big hubs you can often find something, even if just a little QSR, serving food late into the night, but in many other places it’s normal for almost everything to be closed by 22:00 (or even earlier) and not open again until around 05:00 the next day. Sep 6, 2023 at 13:11
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    "For example, you said you can't check in until 3 hours before, but then you took off a half hour wait to check in. Well, you could get to the airport 3.5 hours before so that after your wait, it's checkin time!" - that doesn't quite work out I'm afraid. If there is a queue before you, those standing in the queue won't be able to check in either, so the queue will only start moving 3 hours before departure. Of course, you can go even earlier to make sure you are the first in the queue, then you can reduce the half hour...
    – rob74
    Sep 7, 2023 at 11:31
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Not everybody has the same experience as you.

Regarding check-in (or more frequently, bag drop, really, since you will have checked in online):

  • In many places, you can actually check in a lot earlier, especially if you are travelling with an airline that has a main hub there: for those, nowadays, you don't have dedicated check-in desks for individual flights which open at a set time before that flight's scheduled departure, you just have a large check-in section for all flights on that airline from that terminal/hall, and you can often check in at any time during the day.

  • Sometimes you can even drop your bags the day before

  • In some places like Hong Kong you can do in-town check-in many hours in advance.

  • Many people (especially those with the larger budgets) have priority check-in. A queue that takes longer than 10 minutes is foreign to them.

  • In many cases you check-in online in advance, tag your bag yourselves using kiosks, and just drop them. Queues are a lot shorter in those cases.

  • Many people don't check bags at all

Regarding security:

  • Again, many people have fast track

  • Where that is available, many may participate in programs that let them bypass queues like TSA Pre

Regarding exit controls:

  • In many places they don't exist (US, UK...)

  • For many flights they don't apply (domestic, Schengen...)

  • In many places there are now e-gates

  • In some places there are fast-track queues

Regarding getting to the gate:

  • Not all gates are that far. And there are often shops close to the gates

Even with bags, nowadays, in normal conditions, it would probably be quite unusual for me to take more than 30 minutes from curb to airside. Getting to the gate is probably the biggest variable.

Next, many people will find that one hour is more than enough to eat in most of the outlets available, or to buy a few things. People who are eligible also find the time to visit lounges, where they may eat, take a shower and relax before boarding.

I've eaten a lot of times in airports, especially in two cases:

  • When flying short-haul and/or on a low-cost: food on board is either inexistant or symbolic, choice is limited, conditions are awful. But depending on the time available, it's often going to be the quicker type of food.

  • When flying long-haul, especially for flights departing around midnight: better to have dinner in a vaguely decent restaurant in the airport, and go to sleep as soon as the wheels are up rather than have to wait for dinner service, etc. It's a different story for daytime long-haul (e.g. Europe -> US).

And you have completely ignored passengers in transit, and passengers facing disruption. You're glad there are restaurants, shops and lounges when you are stuck in an airport for hours.

Now I do agree that shops and restaurants which close hours before the last departure are just the stupidest thing.

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    It's probably worth adding that even the fancier looking restaurants in most airports will have menus specifically designed to be cooked very quickly. They know people are in a rush at an airport. Sep 6, 2023 at 10:33
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    @ScottishTapWater Even apparently fancy restaurants - and not just restaurants in airports - may be heating up food prepared in offsite kitchens and then plating it up nicely.
    – Lag
    Sep 6, 2023 at 10:48
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    @ScottishTapWater While most airport restaurants know service must be quick, sadly in some this just doesn't work. Had a bad experience in Gatwick a few years back where it took ages to get food.
    – jcaron
    Sep 6, 2023 at 11:14
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    "And you have completely ignored passengers in transit" - I thought I had included them by mentioning "Or are they just meant for those lucky enough to have a checked through connecting flight". Sep 6, 2023 at 13:42
  • Side note about HKG: currently in-town check-in is a pale version of pre-Covid, limited hours and airlines. And location limits its usefulness, as both stations are located in (comparatively) less populated areas.
    – dda
    Jan 26 at 9:51
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The main use case here is connections. I don't think many people go to the airport early to grab dinner before a flight. Food is almost always cheaper and better outside the airport.

But on a connection, you are stuck. It would be a huge hassle (or outright impossible) to leave the airport and some layovers can be quite long. Hence transit passengers are "captive" customers and the offerings are priced accordingly.

Even though their prices are a bit above the local average of the place

That's IMO an understatement. In Newark a beer and a burger plus tax and tip easily runs you US$50+. Many airports are VERY expensive.

which IMHO is too short for strolling around to pick a restaurant, order and have a complete meal,

Airport restaurants are very used to that. When you get seated, they will often ask your flight info and will advise whether they can accommodate this or not.

Check in and/or baggage drop-off only becomes possible around 3 hours before the scheduled departure.

That happens less often than you think. Most airlines will take your bags earlier as long as there is an open counter. So this depends a lot on what other flights the airline operates that day from that airport.

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    When you say the food etc. in the airport is very expensive compared to outside don't forget those of us who mostly travel on business and for whom its more important to 100% be sure to be on the flight and can expense food. A lot of the time I plan to eat at the airport because it costs me nothing and puts me close to where I absolutely have to be
    – MD-Tech
    Sep 8, 2023 at 9:43
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    Also connections doesn't just mean flight connections. You may be travelling from a distant city by train, bus or boat, which only arrives at the airport every N hours. That potentially leaves you with N-delta hours of layover in the airport. It is not necessarily convenient to go somewhere else during that period (many airports are remote from the cities they serve, and you may have luggage etc). Sep 8, 2023 at 15:52
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    @user1908704: Maybe, but can you enter the secure area early enough to make use of those N hours? Of course, there are many situations where one might be at an airport very early. I have spent many, many hours at airports myself. The specific gripe I have tried to describe in my question is that frequently, I find myself blocked from entering the secure area during those many, many hours until a few hours before scheduled departure. Sep 8, 2023 at 19:51
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    @O.R.Mapper I guess our experience varies there. I've only had that happen on a fairly small number of flights, even during the height of Covid where doc checks were mandatory.
    – Hilmar
    Sep 9, 2023 at 12:12
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You seem to have had some pretty unusual experiences when flying. I'm based in Asia – 15 years in Seoul, 17 and counting in Hong Kong. I used to fly a lot in and out of Europe – CDG, BOD, AMS mostly – and never had it this bad... Of course, frequent travellers, especially business travellers, have various advantages that help speed things up. Priority check-in (at Business-class or even First-class counters); priority lanes; priority boarding, etc. Plus things accessible to most travellers, like online check-in and (if needed) luggage drop counters. So all in all they can optimize their time at the airport. Immigration checks are fast enough when you are a resident of the country of the airport: biometric gates have been around a while, and many places have separate counters for residents/nationals and foreigners.

Also, if you are flying with an airline that has a permanent hub at that airport, you can check-in and/or drop your bag up to 24 hours (depending on each airport's and airline's policies) in advance. Airlines that rent counters for a few hours a day are of course another story...

All in all, from arriving at the airport to clearing Immigration, it rarely takes me more than 30 minutes in most cases. Some airports I've passed through are... less efficient, let's say, but even in dreaded CDG and FRA it took me no more more than 45 minutes. Their priority lane for both security and passport control, and biometric gates, are a godsend.

As a VERY frequent traveller, I rarely use these "facilities" (I always equate using the facilities to going to the toilet...) since I have access to a network of airline lounges through my memberships. So I get all the free food and drinks I need while waiting for my flight. The only shops where I spend time in are the duty-free shops (as I mention in another answer I work in that business), either to buy something or to check on offering and prices. But by and large, I don't use restaurants and the like.

Of course not everybody has access to lounges, so every time I fly I see people making a beeline from passport control to the restaurant zones, and the queue at the paid lounges is often quite long too.

As mentioned in other answers, transit passengers indeed make up the bulk of customers. They have to spend a few, and sometimes more than a few, hours in the airport, and that's a win-win: these shops have a captive clientele, and the passengers can buy food, drinks, and whatever else they need/want. In a few occasions, I didn't have access to a lounge, and didn't feel like paying for the privilege, so instead I toured the facilities, bought a drink, a meal, etc. Parting with my money in airports is not something I make a habit of, but I did appreciate the possibility...

Duty-free shops selling goods (as opposed to food, services etc) do cater to a much larger clientele, since every single departing passenger (at departures: some airports have shops to at the arrivals level) is a potential customer possibly interested in buying something cheaper than downtown. While restaurants and lounges will target mostly weary and hungry transfer passengers, DF shops look at every single one of us as a target. :-)

One thing you have to keep in mind about airports, is that costs of operation are VERY high, and airports not only charge rent, but get a share of the profits from the shops. So you won't see (for long anyway) a shop that doesn't make enough money to sustain these high costs, and make the owners, if not rich, at least happy. These shops exist because they're profitable. They're not fancy decoration.

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    indeed it varies from airport to airport. At Zurich I usually need about 20 minutes from landside to airside. Gives me plenty of time to enjoy the amenities. Jan 26 at 10:02

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