Why Is Airport Food So Expensive? (It's Not ONLY Because You're Stuck and They Know It)

Why Is Airport Food So Expensive? (It's Not ONLY Because You're Stuck and They Know It)

They want how much for a bottle of water?

By Karen Gardiner

Navigating inflated prices is an annoying fact of travel. Whether its booking fees, resort fees, baggage fees, and fees for everything from an upgrade to simply choosing a seat. But one of the most irritating stunts that the travel industry pulls occurs at the airport where anything you want to eat and drink costs noticeably more than is reasonable.

Take water, for example. You are not allowed to carry your own through airport security so if you haven't brought an empty refillable bottle, or the airport has no water fountains (or you are afraid of water fountains, which, according to Travel + Leisure, harbor 1,240 bacteria populations per square inch), you are left with little choice but to purchase an overpriced bottle of water on the other side. For comparison, a 20-ounce bottle of water that you can get for a dollar in a convenience store will typically cost $3 or more in many U.S. airports.

As for food: The Points Guy, er, points out that, "according to a survey by the Airport Council International-North America, 49 percent of the airports in the United States charge more just because you’re eating at the airport." 

But is the presumption of a thin veneer of excitement at being at an airport really what's driving up food and drink prices? Not according to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, which reports that there are operational reasons why things cost more.

The report — which found that products on sale at airport Hudson News stores cost as much as 300 percent more than they do on the street — quoted an airport store operator explaining that the costs of operating airport shops are more expensive than other retail stores because products have to be shipped in small quantities, delivered during off-peak hours, and security-screened at every step of the process. Rent for airport locations, the operator argued, can be significantly higher than on the street; off-airport warehouses are needed due to limited inventory space, and the retailers also often cover the cost of their employees' security screenings and airport parking. 

That's beginning to sound reasonable but the arguments don't really stand up in the light of a lawsuit reported on by USA Today in which a Kitson boutique at LAX (operated by Hudson News) "wanted to charge $2.55 for a one-liter bottle of Smartwater but Hudson insist(ed) on charging $5." Kitson's attorney Steven Bledsoe reasoned: "Water is one of the most basic necessities for travelers and Hudson is taking advantage of the post- 9-11 airport restrictions."

It's not all bad news, though... at least if you are traveling in the northwest. The Points Guy notes that at PDX, "street prices have been in effect since the mid-’80s, making them true pioneers in terms of U.S. airport restaurant pricing."

“For us, street pricing is the right thing to do,” PDX airport spokesperson Kama Simonds told The Points Guy. “Travelers are happy, they are eating good meals and purchasing quality products — all while paying a fair price.” 

Other airports, please take note. 

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