Queues at airport restaurants and food outlets are a common sight, especially at peak travel times, as transport hubs around the world deal with surging numbers of travelers.
In response, a new batch of pick-up and delivery services has arrived on the scene to offer time-poor passengers an alternative to holding out for on-board plane food.
In the US, two recently launched services, AirportSherpa and AtYourGate, deliver food and other retail items directly to passengers at their gate. Another similar offering, Grab, is slightly more established, operating at airports across the US and at London’s Heathrow. The service lets passengers order food in advance and collect it on the go from restaurants as they pass.
These on-demand delivery services follow on the success of the likes of just JustEat and Deliveroo, which have revolutionized the way we order take-out in urban areas.
“People are becoming less and less patient with their food needs,” says Florence Graham-Dixon, Head of Innovation at JLL Foodservice Consulting. “These new airport food delivery services tie into the trend of instant fixes that is sweeping across the foodservice sector, from meal replacement products like Soylent to services that deliver lunch to your desk.”
Grabbing a tasty bite on the go
Today’s airports have no lack of hungry, time-poor consumers who can only gaze at leisurely diners enjoying their freshly cooked food as they grab a pre-packaged sandwich.
Business travelers on tight schedules are prime candidates for using this new breed of app, where cost is secondary to convenience thanks to their expense accounts. They are also likely to appeal to younger affluent travelers, who are well versed in using apps and place a premium on a healthier, fresher food, says Graham-Dixon.
But it’s not just about efficiency. “As travel has become cheaper, many airports are seeing more traffic than they were built to handle,” she says. “Catering to such a high number of people is challenging.”
This sense of urgency is compounded in airports with high volumes of transit passengers. In the U.S., a number of airlines have amended their schedules to reduce connection times – and with them the opportunity for passengers to refuel between flights.
It’s not just passengers who stand to benefit; for retailers, the development offers a rare opportunity to operate beyond the limits of floor space, which comes at a particular premium in airports.
Getting the right delivery plans in place
Setting up these services presents a new set of challenges for operators– namely around logistics. Some terminals are so large and complex that delivery staff to need to use segways or carts to deliver food in a timely fashion. Another challenge is that delivery personnel require a pass that allows them to move around freely and skip security protocols. The application process is lengthy and invasive. Some services are getting around this by employing people who already work at the airport.
As with urban food distribution services, food retailers also lose control of the end-to-end delivery of their product and are unable to rectify issues such as cold food or incorrect orders. “By using delivery services, retailers effectively outsource their experience,” says Graham-Dixon. “In the absence of customer touchpoints, restaurants become purely about product and not about the service, which is a key part of the dining experience. This can dilute the brand and its competitive edge.”
At the same time, it offers opportunities for lesser-known brands to win over new consumers through differentiating factors such as delivery speed. “It gives outsiders a chance to compete—if they can offer something better,” Graham-Dixon adds.
For now the on-demand economy is in its early stages in airports – although many successfully deliver duty free to gates for boarding passengers. Whether food retailers can cope with the additional demand remains to be seen. “If we do see mass uptake of these services, restaurants preparing hot food from scratch will have to rethink operations to cope with demand at peak times,” says Graham-Dixon.
And she believes that delivery services could well become a feature of select airports in the coming years. “At bigger business and transit airports, we can expect to see this roll out, though uptake may be slow due to the unique challenges involved,” concludes Graham-Dixon. “For grab-and-go retailers, it is likely to move much more quickly, and we’ll start seeing digital pick-up services in airports in the near future.”