For food and drink at the airport, forget the lounge, and let’s rethink the flight experience

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I had a good experience in Toronto airport this evening. Arriving quite early, I got through security, and then wandered around Terminal 3. Because I was flying WestJet (saving my client money!), there was no lounge access. This forced me to check out the various food and drink options in the terminal, and I found a brilliant craft beer bar called Beerhive. I took a seat at the bar, and there was power (a source of happiness when travelling). Bonus. I ordered off a tablet, which had a really user-friendly menu. I chose a Muskoka Tap Room IPA. The app then offered me some food options, so I ordered some delicious-looking tuna tacos. I paid with my card, and a few minutes later the beer and tacos arrived. They were tasty, so I made another order: some nachos and a different Muskoka beer.

It was a much better experience than going to a lounge. I had wifi, I had power, I had delicious craft beer and good bar food. Compare this with the food and drink in almost all airline lounges, which is second rate. This is the bizarre thing: nowadays, in decent airports, food and drink in the main terminal is better than you get in the lounge. But everyone goes to the lounge if they can, and eats and drinks badly (it’s free), when they could be having a better experience by not going in. And although it would cost some money, this amount of money isn’t a huge deal for anyone who has lounge access.

If I use a lounge, it’s because it is quieter and nicer than the main terminal experience, and I have access to power. But sometimes the British Airways Galleries Lounge can be really busy and you can’t find a power socket. I don’t usually eat the food there, because it is calories without pleasure. The beer is terrible, and the wine is rarely much better, so often I just end up drinking sparkling water. The coffee is never as good as the options outside the lounge either.

Then there’s plane food. On WestJet, you have to order meals in advance if you want them, and if you want alcoholic drinks, you have to pay for them. There is no wine on board that you’d want to pay for, and the beer options are limited. But it makes you think: why do I ever eat airline food? Boredom? It’s terrible. On the way our I bought a really nice salad and a sandwich from Pret, and they were far better than anything I’ve been given for free on a plane, even in business class. On a recent Norweigan flight you had to pay for food, but you could order it from the touchscreen on the seat back and pay for it there with your bank card, and then the cabin crew brought it to your seat. This was quite cool: I had a lovely big salad and a lovely craft beer from Norway, and it was much more enjoyable than normal airline food. Maybe all airlines should stop giving out free food and alcoholic drinks, and instead stock some interesting options and offer them to passengers – I would pay good money for interesting booze, rather than being stuck with hideous cheap stuff that they now give me for free. Why not offer expensive options, and make some extra revenue? Some people want nice things and will pay for them, even in economy.

The WestJet entertainment system is good. You need your own device with the WestJet app, and then you can watch a wide range of films and programs. The quality on even a phone screen is better than most airline seat back screens. If you don’t have your own device, you can rent one for a few dollars. This saves a lot of expense and weight for the airline: installing seat back screens in every seat is insanely expensive and it all weighs a lot. And technology moves fast: the British Arways Highlife Entertainment System on the older planes in the fleet was groundbreaking 15 years ago but now is antediluvian. So maybe it’s time for airlines to rethink the whole flying experience. They could make more money and have happier customers, who tailor their own personalised flight experience through clever use of technology.

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