Greg Alexander

A Matter of Taste: debunking the airport food myth

Baltimore Sun, March 18, 2006

Airport food has been the brunt of jokes for years – just how many times have you heard someone joke (and oftentimes exaggerate) about how much they paid for a hot dog while traveling? Thankfully, times have changed for airport dining, and the new Terminal A/B at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) is giving Marylanders a taste of the changing face of airport fare.

The new terminal is a modern, state-of-the-art 510,000-square-foot facility to accommodate BWI’s largest carrier, Southwest Airlines, and to complement this new look, a different approach was taken with the dining and retail atmosphere. “In 2004, BWI went to a new business model to run the concessions program and then selected a developer to run and manage the concessions. It’s a modern approach,” says Jonathan Dean, manager, division of communications for Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA), owner and operator of BWI.

Dean says that there were a number of specific goals and objectives with this new approach to concessions. “First, BWI wanted to provide diners high-quality restaurants and a variety of dining options. We also wanted to highlight regional products and make the dining and retail area a destination within itself.” To accomplish this, BWI hired a new concessions developer, BAA Maryland, a project of BAA USA, an affiliate of BAA plc, which owns and operates seven airports in the U.K., and manages all operations of the Indianapolis International Airport. However, the company is possibly best knows for its AIRMALL concept, which can be seen in airports in Pittsburgh and Boston and aims to create a mall-like shopping atmosphere.

“The AIRMALL concept wasn’t practiced in the United States until the early 1990s but was already a success in the U.K.,” says Mark Knight, president of BAA Maryland. “AIRMALL is a customer-focused approach, which is new for airport dining areas. Our tenants aim to provide goods and services travelers want to purchase instead of what the airport vendors want to sell. The entire culture has changed.” Knight says that the two keys to success to the AIRMALL approach are competition and street-based pricing. “As a developer, we like to get lots of companies to compete for travelers’ dollars; we hope to have 50 to 60 companies – some with multiple sites – at BWI. But, the real key is street-based pricing. We believe that you shouldn’t pay more at the airport for the same item than you would pay at a shopping mall. Why should you be penalized just because you’re traveling? In addition to doing what’s fair, we believe that if you provide food that is priced accordingly, people will spend more money; it’s makes good business sense.”

Dean concurs. “With customer service as a focus, the belief is that if you provide creative and well-thought concessions, it will boost passenger spending. In the post-911 world, travelers are spending more time in the preflight area due to earlier arrival time requirements. At BWI, about 85 percent of travelers start or end their journey here. Travelers rarely use BWI as a connecting airport, so they spend a lot of time here.” Dean points out that the food and shopping operations in the new terminal are located past the security area, so they are limited to those with a boarding pass; however, other food options – such as locally-owned Bill Bateman’s Bistro – are situated in areas that are open to non-ticketed passengers.

A variety of food options was also a goal of the airport. Knight says that they wanted to bring in national name brands like McDonalds for those travelers who wanted familiarity. “With McDonalds, you always know what you’re going to get, and that’s a preference for many travelers. However, we also wanted to give opportunities to local small business owners. For example, in the Southwest Airlines area, there are six tenants that all have a strong regional or national brand, but they are all owned by locals. For us, this is smart because we know that their heart, soul and money is invested in the business, so they will provide great service to customers.”

In addition to national brands, BWI also wanted to feature restaurants and retail operations that have a regional flair to them so that Marylanders could enjoy local brands while also giving out-of-towners a taste of the Mid-Atlantic. Dean points out that the new terminal features many locally-based businesses, including Phillips Famous Seafood (Ocean City), California Tortilla (Rockville), Charlie Chiang’s KWAI (Gaithersburg), Jos. A. Bank (Hampstead), Mayorga Coffee (Washington, D.C.) and Fire and Ice, a Maryland-based specialty jeweler.

Knight says that dining was a priority when planning the space, along with retail operations that sell newspapers, magazines and sundries. He says that due to the layout of the new terminal, retail options were limited, but they did bring in Celebrate Maryland, Godiva, Bon Voyage and Sunglass Hut/Watch Station.

But food and shopping is not the only attraction of the new terminal. Anyone who visits the new terminal cannot help but notice and marvel at “Celestial Passage,” a 110-foot-long, 25-foot-tall orange-and-blue stained glass structure located after passengers clear security and prepare to board an escalator. As passengers descend to the connector, the art glass carries them along the journey with a sweeping, fluid movement. The theme of the artwork looks forward to space travel, according to Guy Kemper, the artist of “Celestial Passage.”

Kemper, based in Lexington, Ky., whose family has roots in Southern Maryland, was hired for the job based on the piece he did for the Greater Orlando International Airport. Kemper’s stained-glass artwork can be seen all around the country – from Ohio to Wisconsin to The Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero in New York – as well as in Europe. He is currently working on a piece for Mt. Baker Station in Seattle.

“Celestial Passage,” which took more than 18 months from start to finish, was a labor of love for Kemper. “First, I built a model because no one knew what the space was going to look like inside. The ceiling swerves and there’s an escalator … there’s a lot going on in that space. I studied architectural drawings and building models to determine what movement or composition would look good. Then, I started painting.” Kemper says that he spent two to three months determining how to make the structure. Other steps included manipulating the glass into the design and adding accept colors – purple splatters and red brush strokes. “I had to make two or three attempts at the color combinations. At first the orange and red looked too fiery, too angry, too scary for an airport.” Working with Wilhelm Derix, one of the world’s leading glass fabricators, in Germany, Kemper’s vision came to fruition with a stunning piece of work. Also, with the help of Kemper’s work, BWI was recognized with a Merit Award for Outstanding Design for Terminal A/B by AIA Maryland, a Society of the American Institute of Architects.

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