A Food-Forward Approach to Airport Development

Last month’s article introduced a new people-focused approach to airport development called Airport Urbanism, or AU for short. In a nutshell, the AU model aims to strengthen the relationship between the airport, passengers, and local residents in order to improve the passenger experience, benefit local communities, and increase non-aeronautical revenue. Read more about the AU model here.


Thinking about the relationship between passengers, residents, and the airport empowers us to see more clearly what passengers want, what local residents can offer, and how the airport can benefit by bringing them together. By matching the needs of your airport’s unique passenger mix with the skills of the people who live near the airport, the AU Model opens up a range of site-specific growth strategies that go far beyond conventional approaches to airport-area development.

This is the first in a series of articles that examines some of those strategies. Today’s topic? Food!

Most cultures attach great importance to food: eating together, and giving food as gifts, are universal ways to reinforce social ties with friends, family, and business partners. Food is also an essential part of daily life: simply put, everyone who flies needs to eat while they’re traveling.

Unfortunately, airports are not typically considered to be culinary hotspots, to put it mildly. In fact, many people dread having to eat in airports. Traveling around the world’s major hubs, I’ve often been struck by how hard it is to find tasty, healthy food that reflects local culinary traditions: either to eat on the go, or to bring back as presents.

That’s surprising, given three major shifts that work in airport food’s favor.

The first is the fact that airlines—taking their cue from the low-cost sector—have drastically cut back on in-flight meal services. Frequent flyers and business travelers are also finding that the food in airport lounges just ain’t what it used to be. The upshot? A lot of hungry travelers.

Second, thanks to the rapidly changing demographics of air travel, passengers have developed much more specific expectations about what they want to eat while in transit. Individual niche markets—such as organic and halal food—have become large enough to be economically significant. Yet at many airports, these dietary needs are not being met, leaving willing customers with empty stomachs.

Finally, the rise in culinary tourism has elevated food to an essential part of the travel experience. This is especially true among Asian tourists. Travel guides written in China, Japan, and South Korea place an incredible emphasis on local food specialities, which are popularized by dozens of TV series dedicated entirely to food tourism.


Many Asian tourists structure their travel itineraries around meals, going out of their way to sample unusual foods even if it requires a major detour. Before they fly home, they stock up on unique local delicacies to bring back to their friends, family, and colleagues.

These travelers’ enthusiasm for all things gastronomic is part of a larger global trend that values local cuisines and locally produced food.

Airports located in cities with a strong culinary reputation are uniquely positioned to take advantage of that trend.

Take Paris’s Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport. CDG is one of Europe’s leading hubs, hosting nearly 70 million pax per year. It’s also the gateway to France: a country that has a well deserved reputation for delicious regional cuisines which, in turn, are complemented by a dizzying array of culinary traditions from the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. Tourists and business travelers arrive at Charles de Gaulle with high gastronomic expectations.

At the same time, CDG is surrounded by towns that boast an extraordinary culinary diversity. Here’s a sample of some of the thousands of food photos that local residents have recently uploaded to social media:


These images attest to two of the main reasons why people visit Paris: its reputation as one of the world’s top culinary destinations, and the cosmopolitan atmosphere created by its diverse population.


These photos—taken by actual people who live near the airport—not only reveal an extensive knowledge base about culinary traditions from around the world, but also a network of small-scale entrepreneurs who are ready and willing to monetize that knowledge.

Food brings people together

Food, whether served for immediate consumption or packaged as a gift, is a versatile job creation strategy because culinary talent transcends lines of social class and levels of education. And all passengers, no matter where they’re from, appreciate good food! By curating a unique culinary environment—one that draws on the traditions of the airport’s home region, and on the cooking skills of local residents—airports can use food as a vehicle for generating both revenue and local employment. And in doing so, they can create a memorable sensory experience for passengers that will make them want to come back again and again.

Incorporating a food-forward approach can also help airports to improve on their existing real estate development strategies. Many airport-area office parks and exhibition centers are built with the intention to facilitate business transactions. But they often lack the kinds of convivial spaces—a boisterous restaurant, a quiet wine bar—that are essential for building trust among business partners, and where discussions that began in the boardroom can be continued in a more informal atmosphere.

How can your airport incorporate a culinary strategy into its larger development plans? And what are some other ways to strengthen your airport’s relationship with passengers and local residents?

More on that next time!


One thought on “A Food-Forward Approach to Airport Development

  1. Pingback: How Can We Build Attractive Neighborhoods Around the Airport? | MAX HIRSH

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