Forget everything you know — or think you know — about food in airport lounges.
Airlines and their food services companies have been quietly upgrading their preflight offerings, to the surprise of many passengers who are used to shrink-wrapped fruit and muffins.
For example, this summer, Qantas opened a reimagined lounge in Hong Kong, with a seating capacity of 290 passengers and overlooking Hong Kong’s famous Sky Bridge. Qantas worked with Sodexo Live! to create a culinary experience that features Guangdong-style chicken with black beans and steamed rice and braised beef brisket noodle soup. Guests can also kick back at the bar with a Chi Chi, a signature drink made from dark rum with pineapple, lime and vanilla.
Suzy Kitcher, the global CEO for airport lounges at Sodexo Live!, says airlines like Qantas are eager to up their game after the pandemic and to “ensure a consistent level of top-tier service” in their lounges.
“Airline lounges have been undergoing significant upgrades to enhance their food offerings,” explains Pallavi Sadekar, head of operations at VisitorGuard.com.
- Customization. Some airline lounges are introducing made-to-order stations where passengers can personalize their meals.
- Chef collaborations. Some airline lounges are teaming up with renowned chefs and culinary experts.
- Expanded beverage selection. Airline lounges are enhancing their beverage offerings with new cocktails and beverage options.
- Gourmet menus. Lounge menus are becoming more diverse and sophisticated, offering a range of gourmet options.
- Local flavors. Airline lounges are increasingly showcasing regional flavors and culinary traditions by partnering with local restaurants.
I spotted this trend a few weeks ago at the flagship Qantas lounge in Sydney. The facility had definitely upped its game since the pandemic, with new dining options and a special beverage menu. It turns out Qantas is investing $100 million in upgrades to its airport lounges, which includes expanding its Sydney business class lounge. The Australian carrier also has big plans for its lounges in Auckland and Melbourne.
What’s new in airline lounge food?
Air travelers have noticed a change, too.
When Bill McCloskey’s nephew drops him off at the airport, he half-jokingly tells him to “enjoy the oatmeal” in the Delta lounge. But McCloskey, a retired journalist from Bethesda, Md., says Delta has upped its game lately. The choices now include warm breakfast sandwiches, frittatas and omelets at breakfast, and antipasto, wraps and soups for lunch.
“It’s generous and quite pleasing,” he says.
“Blown away” by the Centurion lounge
Anton Radchenko, CEO of the claims management company AirAdvisor, says airport lounge food has a well-deserved reputation for being bland and unappealing. But change is happening, and it has taken veteran frequent air travelers like him by surprise. Radchenko says he was “blown away” by the Centurion lounge in San Francisco.
“I loved the fact that they had an open kitchen so that I could actually see that my food is being cooked fresh right in front of my eyes,” he says. “For me, fresh food is always a priority, and Centurion has earned my trust on this. So, full brownie points to them. I was also informed that they source the freshest veggies and fruits from the local market, which is amazing.”
A surprise choice for an “elevated” dining experience
Julia Carter, founder of Craft Travel, reported a similar surprise when she visited the American Airlines Admirals Club lounge in Washington’s Dulles International Airport. “It was fully renovated both in terms of design and food experience,” she says. “The buffet is completely reimagined with more variety and upscale choices for the modern traveler, such as oat milk at the espresso bar and French pastries on the dessert tray.” Carter says American Airlines would have never been her choice for an elevated dining experience, whether on the ground or in the air, “but going forward, I’d say it would certainly be a favorite.”
Etihad lounge dining: Among the “best in the world”
The upgrades aren’t limited to U.S. carriers by any means. Frequent travelers mention the high quality of dining options at the Gulf carriers — Emirates, Etihad and Qatar. “I love the food at the Etihad Lounge at JFK International Airport in New York,” says Ravi Parikh, CEO of Roverpass, a booking engine for campgrounds and RV parks. “The meal quality is excellent, and the white-gloved butler service is one of the best in the world.” Indeed, the Gulf carriers are constantly upgrading their dining choices, to the point where air travelers anticipate constant improvements.
Bouncing back after COVID
Passengers have noticed that some lounges, now back to their pre-pandemic service levels, have added even more amenities. Take Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong facilities. The Pier is home to several dining options available to Cathay Pacific first-class travelers. The dining room offers an Asian-inspired, seasonal à la carte menu, featuring classic dishes, signature noodles, and specialty desserts, alongside an extensive wine and beverage list. Lounge guests can also grab a quick bite at The Pantry, which offers sandwiches and drinks.
The airline also has added new menu options at The Wing, including a new champagne bar called The Haven. At The Haven, there’s a rotating à la carte menu, which includes a combination of Western- and Asian-inspired dishes paired with fine wines. The Wing also has a buffet with traditional Hong Kong dim sum, fine cheeses and cold cuts, and desserts and premium chocolates.
Airport lounge food is taking off this year
No question about it, airport lounge food is getting a significant upgrade this year. And there’s a lot of buzz about what’s on tap for 2024. New lounges, new restaurants and new dining concepts will make their debut as international air travel returns to pre-pandemic levels. Something to remember when you plan your next flight.
It’s an exciting time to be traveling. Just don’t forget to pack your appetite.