Most of us have probably raced for a flight on an empty stomach, choosing not to stop for a bite to eat for fear of getting stuck behind a finicky customer, who asks for no relish in their cheeseburger but gets it anyway, and the flight boarding without us. Well, now there are apps to make snacking before departure a smoother experience.
The problem is that finding quality, fresh, piping hot food in an airport isn't easy. Even if you successfully lugged your suitcase around and queued up for half an hour to buy a toasted panini, by the time you get tucked in, it'll either be cold or you'll have to eat it quickly and not enjoy it as you would if you had time on your hands.
Grab and AirGrub are two platforms offering passengers the option to order food before their taxi has even dropped them off. The apps work by using flight information entered to bring up a list of eating establishments in a terminal and their menus; the restaurant receives the order and the food can be collected warm, without waiting in line.
AirGrub is currently available at the JFK, Boston Logan [below] and San Francisco airports, and Grab services ones in Austin and Atlanta, though not every restaurant and takeaway outlet has signed up. They also give the option to include any special instructions before paying, so asking for a relish-free cheeseburger shouldn't cause any delays.
Another app emerging on the scene is soon-to-launch Food on the Fly. Like the other two, it allows food to be ordered in advance, but takes the process one step further.
"The existing solutions don't solve the problem. They enable passengers to order ahead from a select number of restaurants, but without any sort of to-the-gate delivery component. Without providing that service, we think they are of limited use," says co-founder Chad Cummings.
Using a backend order management system, Food on the Fly tracks customers’ flights right up to the last minute, including any delays or gate changes. The information is relayed to staff on the ground who deliver it behind airport security as and when required.
"It means customers are free to kick back in the lounge and have their meals delivered to them without having to leave their seats," Cummings adds.
As for those people who are trying to catch a connecting flight and are pushed even more for time, delivery staff in a terminal can wait at the gates as they disembark from their arrival or board for departure, to hand over food seamlessly.
According to Cummings, air travel can be full of unknowns and logistical challenges. By removing the hassle of simply queuing for pre-ordered food, it's one less thing for passengers to have to think about, and who would probably rather spend as little time as possible inside an airport.
Technology isn’t just revolutionising the airport food service. Here are a few examples of how it can and could influence your in-flight experience once you’ve left the runway.
In your seat
According to a team of students at the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, 3D printing food could "provide passengers with a much larger, and fresher selection of delectable meals". Printing from sachets of powder and purée makes logistical sense – it’d be easier to transport and could be carried onboard in bulk. However, there’d still be the issue of palatability to navigate. Food in the air is subject to a lack of humidity and low air pressure, which reduces the sensitivity of taste buds.
Up in the air
Waste is an inevitable part of air travel. Reheating leftovers that have thawed during a flight is unsafe and any fresh food taken onboard will have a short shelf-life. The Dutch company Foodcase has applied food science knowledge to create ready-to-eat snacks and meals that have an extended shelf-life at ambient, room temperatures, meaning any food not sold during a flight can be taken on to the next one.
Under your feet
A patent filed by Sell GMBH, a German division of Zodiac Aerospace, proposes for passengers to receive their food from a conveyor belt that would rise from the floor at the push of a button. The Telegraph writes, "the system would make more efficient use of cabin space, keeping the aisles clear during the flight and allowing crew to better attend to travellers and their needs".