Less Food in Air, More on Ground

The elimination of free pretzels on US Airways flights -- scheduled to start next month -- is just the latest step in the evolution of on-board eating.

As airlines have stopped serving meals and even snacks, airport concessions are evolving. Airports are beefing up to-go options, selling more snacks and even seeing a boon in sit-down restaurants.

"Back in the day, people would grab a hot dog if anything to tide them over," explains Larry Jenkins, general manager with HMSHost in Charlotte, which runs more than 60 restaurants and shops at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. Now, travelers head to the airport early to eat before their planes take off, he said.

The biggest lift for airport food, Jenkins says, came as airlines removed meals in the past few years. Today, most major airlines serve meals only in first class, although some offer sandwiches for purchase in coach.

Airports, then, were left to fill the stomachs of hungry travelers. The options:

Snacks. Newsstands offer a wide variety, including candy, nuts, chips and even the maligned pretzels (in Charlotte, $1.19 for a 2.25-ounce bag). The best-seller: trail mix ($2.99 for a 4-ounce bag).

Food to go. There are plenty of fast-food restaurants, such as Manchu Wok and Sbarro. In addition, sit-down restaurants like Chili's and Tequileria's have opened to-go counters. To-go food at Chili's accounts for nearly 15 percent of the restaurant's business, compared with about 5 percent at a non-airport Chili's, Jenkins says.

Restaurants. Airports have long had fast-food restaurants. But one of the more interesting trends at airports is sit-down dining. Charlotte has about a half dozen full-service restaurants, including Phillips Famous Seafood and the Stock Car Cafe.

Travelers are showing up earlier at airports because of stepped-up security, which leaves more time for leisurely dining. In addition, Charlotte's eateries are seeing a boost from recent additions to US Airways' flight schedules. More connecting traffic means more diners.

The goal at the sit-down restaurants is to have customers finish a meal in 30-45 minutes, Jenkins says.

One afternoon last week at the airport, travelers said they employed a number of strategies to keep fed while traveling.

Stu Carlson, 52, of State College, Pa., compared eating options while awaiting a flight to Denver for a job interview.

"You marvel at the variety of choices you get at the airport," he said, after examining Chili's sandwiches and salads and passing on them. He headed to the nearby Starbucks to see what it offered.

Brett Estabrook, 31, grabbed a quick breakfast at the Dallas airport, then ate barbecue for lunch in Charlotte while waiting for a plane to Wilmington. But for his 19-month-old son, Charlie, Estabrook and his wife packed Goldfish crackers, toaster waffles, fruit snacks and a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

Still, the allure of airport food starts young.

"I got McDonald's in Dallas, and Charlie was a lot more interested in my biscuit than he was in PB&J," he said.