Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Believe it or not, Americans used to go to the airport just for eats and giggles.
Over three and a half million Americans will take to the skies this Thanksgiving, and I would feel confident in betting that very few are looking forward to it. Air travel these days is marked by delays, limited legroom, and unending, cookie-cutter air terminals that make New York look like Minneapolis look like Vienna look like LAX.
So would you believe me if I told you that people used to go to airports just to eat food? Just for fun?
To understand why Americans would do such a thing, we have to first think of the air travel business as something it hasn’t been in years: an upstart new technology, one that badly needed market share. In 1965, a full three decades after the advent of commercial flight, Time magazine noted that eight in ten Americans had never been on a plane before. (Compare that to 2000, when half of Americans took at least one round-trip per year.) Airlines needed to pitch air travel to the nation, and the airport, as one author wrote in a 1940s guide to commercial air transportation, was “the sales counter of air transportation.” Good airports, the manual advised, should have “high-class waiting room, ticketing and restaurant facilities,” the presence of which would “retain” passengers who might otherwise opt for a train.
Why “high-class”? In the 1950s and 60s, U.S. domestic travelers could expect to pay 40 percent more per roundtrip ticket than they do today, which meant flying was often the province of the rich, or at least the richer. Flying businessmen needed nicer places to eat, explains Jan Whitaker, a self-described “consumer historian” who writes a blog on restaurant history. Enter the white-tablecloth airport restaurant. The elegant Newarker, inside New Jersey’s Newark Airport, was known for its “flaming sword specialties”; it launched the career of New York City fine-dining juggernaut Restaurant Associates, which still operates 150 upscale restaurants today. National Airport's Terrace dining room, built in 1941, "was a popular destination for Washingtonians in search of fine dining," according to its 1997 National Register of Historic Places registration form. According to Whitaker, the restaurant at the airport in Albuquerque, New Mexico, went as far as to hire a European chef who had studied with the legendary Auguste Escoffier and had “cooked for U.S. presidents and royal families in Europe.”
These fine dining establishments played an important role in the larger airport ecosystem. Architect Alastair Gordan notes in his cultural history of airports that retail concessions were expected to account for more than a third of New York’s Idlewild airport revenue in 1947. That meant airports had a special challenge: They had to bring in non-passengers from the outside world. “One objective should be to make the airport attractive to the general public and to sight-seers,” the 1940s commercial air guide read. “Achieving the … objective develops new passengers.”
It turns out that wasn’t so difficult. By the 1950s, airports were certainly travel hubs, but they were also, strangely, something like tourist attractions. People sometimes came to the airport expressly to watch planes take off and land. (The lack of post-9/11-level security didn't hurt.) The 1957 debut of the Boeing 707, the first commercially successful jetliner, only stoked the public’s interest in hanging out in airports because they could. Not everyone could fly, or fly frequently, but watching planes “was a marvel that they could personally participate in,” says Whitaker.
So people came to the airport restaurants for birthdays. They came in for dates. A Cleveland Plain-Dealer ad from 1965 summons patrons to a Cleveland airport’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. A 1941 ad in the Seattle Daily Times invites customers to “watch the planes come and go as you enjoy Thanksgiving dinner in the unique ‘Sky Room.’” Family, turkey, and airplanes—for just $1.25 per person!
But by the 1970s, Whitaker says, the heyday of destination airport restaurants was over. Many airports “couldn’t get someone to take the contract to run a restaurant. It became difficult [because airport restaurants] were seen as such losers that sort of depended on whether you were a hub or not,” she says. Part of the problem? The novelty had worn off, particularly among the hoi polloi, who were riding airplanes in greater unwashed numbers. It turns out that airplane travel, as the novelist Sinclair Lewis observed in 1929, “is the most monotonous and tedious form of journeying known of mankind, save possibly riding on a canal boat through flat country.” Oof.
Of course, modern airports still have restaurants. Driven by new scarcity of food on domestic flights (often nary a peanut packet in sight), some have even asserted that gourmet airport eats are making a comeback. But cough up enough money for a ticket just to get a squidwich and a nice glass of red? Are you nuts?
In December of 2013, LAX’s iconic Theme Building restaurant closed, perhaps for good. The building, built in 1961, is emblematic of restaurants of the era, with a spacey dome that once slowly rotated to give patrons a 360 degree view of the airport, the horizon—and beyond.
"The problem is, it was built when bringing your family out to have dinner and watch the airplanes was a cool thing to do," Gina Marie Lindsey, the executive director of the airport’s management company, told the L.A. Times. "Passengers [now] won't leave the terminals to have dinner there because it's unpredictable how long it'll take them to get through security again."
Special thanks to Jan Whitaker for her insight.