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Why Your Airport Burger Costs That Much

This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

You can get almost anything at the airport in 2024. But it’s going to cost you.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

Warped Airport Logic

A $30 hamburger. A $7 coffee. A $38 shower (yes, some airports have showers now). The modern airport offers a cornucopia of overpriced delights for the modern traveler.

An obvious reason that airport vendors get away with these prices is that airline travelers are a captive audience—often a bored and thirsty one too. But airport vendors also charge what they do because of the peculiar cost of doing business there. Once you step through an airport’s sliding doors, you enter a new reality—or, as Emily Stewart wrote in Vox in 2022, a “sort of economic twilight zone where the cost of anything and everything goes up.”

The cost of retail space in the airport can run unusually high, Blaise Waguespack, an expert on airport management at Embry‑Riddle Aeronautical University, told me, and spaces come with extra costs. Vendors may need to pay for employee badges, transportation to the airport, and parking. The operating challenges are meaningful too: Getting food through its version of airport security (which needs to happen frequently, because storage inside the airport is limited) is trickier than simply delivering goods in town.

But although it can feel like no price is out of the question, airports do technically have guidelines for what vendors should charge. Many airport vendors charge “street” or “street plus” pricing, typically capped at about 10 percent more than the cost of nearby establishments, Waguespack told me—though what a given area’s street cost is can be subjective. Some mid-tier places end up charging upscale prices. And airport restaurants have, in many places, gone genuinely upscale: More and more fine-dining and name-brand establishments are coming to America’s airports, bringing nicer food but also normalizing heftier checks.

In the early days of air travel, people didn’t really care about high airport prices, Janet Bednarek, an airport historian at the University of Dayton, told me in an email. “Well into the 1970s, most of the people who flew were affluent and thus not highly price sensitive,” she explained, and in the decades that followed, expensive food became the norm. In the 1990s, however, when BAA (formerly the British Airports Authority) began managing retail at the Pittsburgh airport, it brought European standards with it, including that vendors needed to charge prices similar to those at outside stores. “This was revolutionary and for a time did bring prices down,” Bednarek said.

But after 9/11, the economics of airport food, like so much else about flying, transformed. “The necessity of security measures meant that hiring became harder and more expensive for merchants,” Bednarek told me. The way people approached their time in the airport also changed, and some restaurants lost business. “It is hard to remember, but before 9/11 non-passengers could come to the airport and hang out,” she said. People waited around for loved ones to land, or even just watched planes go by. A series of post-9/11 shifts, Bednarek explained, combined with the more recent disruptions of COVID-19 and inflation, have kept prices high.

What’s a traveler to do? Is there some sort of hack to avoid an upcharge on your chicken tenders? When I asked Katy Nastro, a spokesperson for the travel company Going, her response boiled down to: not really. “Try to avoid eating at the airport altogether,” she advised in an email. Pack your own food, she recommended, unless you have a luxurious lounge to take advantage of.

The volume of flights that have been delayed lately means that people sometimes have lots of time to kill at the airport. Once you cross the threshold from normal life into travel mode, it can be easy to start relying on warped airport logic. An extra 30 minutes? Consider a fancy cocktail. An extra hour? Consider a massage. Three extra hours? Consider a three-course meal and two more drinks to pass the time. There’s not a lot people can do to resist, besides opting out altogether. So why not just pack a turkey sandwich instead and watch the planes go by?


Today’s News

  1. The Supreme Court accidentally uploaded and removed a document on its website, which seemed to show that the Court is set to allow Idaho’s emergency-room doctors to perform emergency abortions on a temporary basis, according to Bloomberg News.
  2. The Bolivian president accused the military of attempting a coup after military members and tanks stormed the presidential palace.
  3. After at least 23 people were killed in yesterday’s mass protests, Kenyan President William Ruto backed down from signing a controversial finance bill that would raise taxes.


Explore all of our newsletters here.

Evening Read

A photo of two protesters sitting in front of Stonehenge, which has orange spray paint on it
Just Stop Oil via AP

Maybe Don’t Spray-Paint Stonehenge

By Tyler Austin Harper

They run toward Stonehenge in white shirts. “Just Stop Oil” is emblazoned on the front, marking them as emissaries of a British climate-activism group. The pair—one of them young, the other older—carry twin orange canisters that emit a cloud of what looks like colored smoke (we later learn it’s dyed corn flour) …

If I have to pick a side, I’m with the gentlemen wielding the washable dye. (I am an environmental-studies professor, after all.) But the protest left me frustrated: yet another example of environmental activism that produces more rancor over its means than focus on its message.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

A brunette Dallas Cowboys cheerleader smiles and looks off to the side

Watch. America’s Sweethearts, a new docuseries out on Netflix, is an addictive watch about the cult of femininity, Caitlin Dickerson writes.

Read. These five books are for people who really love books or want to love them more.

Play our daily crossword.


As Stewart’s article reminded me, back in the 1990s, America’s great chronicler of lifestyle inconveniences addressed the high cost of airport fare: In a Seinfeld bit, the titular character asks, “Do you think that the people at the airport that run the stores have any idea what the prices are every place else in the world? Or do you think they just feel they have their own little country out there and they can charge anything they want?” It’s a fair question. Although it’s not its own country, it does have its own name—experts tell me that the space past the scanners is called “airside.” I hope you have a good and reasonably priced journey if you will be venturing airside in the coming holiday week!

— Lora

Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.


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