Why is food so expensive at airports?

Airport food courts; where cuisine dreams and travel dollars go to die.

I haven't had the displeasure (or general unintelligence) of ordering a $38 airport beer or a $30 deconstructed sausage butty and tea, but I've been through enough terminals the world over to back up the theory that eating and drinking in an airport is going to be fairly lacklustre or excruciatingly expensive or, more often, both.

Every time I pass through Geneva airport, I'm either arriving as close as possible to boarding time, or practically running through the airport and straight onto a transfer van to avoid any pangs of hunger, scents of warm pastry or plain boredom forcing me to purchase expensive food in a very expensive currency, the Swiss franc.

Better to wait 30 minutes until crossing into France and the (relative) value of the euro. The Croque Monsieur is basically the same, but nearly half the price.

But you don't need to travel half-way around the world to feel ripped-off, there seems to be plenty of bad deals in New Zealand.

As a final farewell meal (if we could call it that) to kill time ahead of our flight out of Auckland International, I parted ways with nearly $NZ20 ($A18) for five glorified chicken nuggets – sorry, boneless chicken dippers – from the only establishment open on the other side of security. I suppose it made saying goodbye to New Zealand a little easier.

It's not just chef-cooked meals that charge like a raging bull in airports, the same ubiquitous snacks, drinks, sandwiches and savouries you could find in a supermarket or main street cafe have the "airport tax" slapped on.

Take a 750ml bottle of water. Go on, be fancy, you're on holiday – make it sparkling. At Countdown, they range from $1-3. At a dairy or cafe, they're closer to $4. And, at one Auckland airport all-day establishment, this carbonated delight adds a whole $7 to the bill. Not a bad mark-up at all.

Now, if you finish up your time in New Zealand with a humble orange note with Sir Ed on it, you might have thought you'd be able to get a barista made flat-white for the road, to see you through the long-haul flight. Well, the coffee snob's luck has run out, because you'd be very hard-pressed to find one for less than a fiver, many large ones were pushing $6.


Five dollars might just – maybe – be enough for an airport muffin to pick at while you wait. But a freshly made one at a supermarket goes for only $2.50. Even another sugar hit, like a little chocolate bar is victim to a ruthless mark-up of close to 100 per cent. I'm thankful that I did the Whittaker's run at Pak'n'Save on my way out, as the price for even a smaller bar was double that at your local.

For many years, Auckland International airport's food selection took a beating and the area's latest renovation included a collection of more upmarket options to show off the advances in Kiwi cafe culture (read as: expensive) to draw people away from the American fast-food chains.


Credit: Jay Jay Feeney/Twitter

But now, if you're complaining about price-gouging, and you simply cannot go three hours without eating, it's probably best to return to those same well-known fried food chains. The pricing is well-known and consistent.

Of course, if airport companies truly valued customer experience they may attempt to echo European airport and train station concourses, which have smaller versions of national supermarket chains (think a pint-sized New World Metro). Travellers get convenience food, sun block, newspapers, drinks and more for prices they would pay during their weekly food shop. No, it doesn't prevent rip-offs, but it does offer discounts and choice. It's great for when you arrive into Heathrow at midnight and realise you left the pantry bare.

In the airport establishments' defence – and after the apocalyptic trading environment of the last two years, they do deserve one – higher prices are just the harsh reality of when economics and human behaviour collide at airport food courts and drinking dens: a completely captive (and often bored) audience, reduced competition and higher-than-average rents.

Hospitality companies, large and small, will pay above-average rents to airport companies because they know (the last two years notwithstanding) they get a near-constant flow of people past their kiosk, cafe or bar. If even one-third are foreigners, they probably aren't in a position to question the true value of their meal, let alone go elsewhere.

Have you ever exited the terminal and drag your luggage 20 minutes past rental car yards and park-and-ride spaces just to save $2 on a beer? No.

Of course profit-driven proprietors are going to charge more, when weary travellers have nowhere to go. Some compete with each other, but that's nothing like the outside world where you have much more freedom of choice.

The freedom of choice you do have, of course, is to go without for a couple of hours. Have less nosh in your mouth and more dosh in your wallet for the destination that awaits … even if it is the local supermarket.


See also: $38 for a beer? Vendor forced to refund customers overcharged at US airport

See also: I avoided a new travel rip-off simply by pressing a button