Passengers Suffer Miserable Airport Food While Politicians Take Cash From Vendors

Airport concessions companies suck. Most of the restaurants you think you’re eating at aren’t actually run by the people you think they are. The brands are licensed by airport concessions companies like OTG, Delaware North, and HMSHost. When a brand wants to do something that’s actually good they even advise against it.

Yet St. Louis is about to demand another decade of mediocrity, without even trying to be better. They plan to extend the airport concessions contract for HMSHost through January 2031 without even looking at alternatives, and their excuse is Covid-19. That’s just sad.

“Across the industry, the standard has been that you look at giving concessionaires an extension coming out of COVID,” said airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge. “We did that with rental cars, we’ve done that with some of the other concessions that have come up.”

HMSHost has been entrenched in St. Louis since 1967 – four years before it was even named St. Louis Lambert International Airport. According to the St. Louis airport’s director, none of the other mediocre concessions companies were even interested in the deal since they would only offer seven years (with a new terminal planned to open in the next decade).

Yet OTG even hired a local lobbyist to try to gain access to bidding – and the opportunity to place iPads throughout the airport. HMSHost keeps getting extensions with construction and uncertainty as the excuse,

In 1996, Host had its contract extended by over a decade rather than bid out because of time constraints due to the construction of Terminal 2, officials said at the time. And in 2019, the contract was extended for four years, with airport officials citing uncertainty because of discussions at the time about privatizing Lambert.

So what could possibly be going on here?

  • One of HMSHost’s local partners has former Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley as its lobbyist.

  • Another local partner is co-owned by the publisher of a local newspaper.

  • And both are major donors to the mayor and other influential local politicians – including to the Comptroller who votes for airport contracts.

St. Louis, known for its corruption, is not unlike Atlanta where you get airport concessions by kicking back to the former mayor’s daughter. But my message is simple. Airports can do so much better than HMSHost, OTG, and Delaware North. They just have to want to be better than the Gap.

(HT: @DaninMCI)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. St. Louis has a decent number of flights. There isn’t a single good restaurant in the terminal/concourse used by Delta and United.

  2. MIA – where your bid is the best of 3 even after 3 rebids but turned down by “The Boys Downtown” because you are not related to one of the boys or married into “The Family”. True Third World politics at its best.

  3. @FNT, it’s not even the lack of restaurants, there aren’t any lounges either and Priority Pass is essentially useless there.

  4. Airport food is known to suck*, as long as it’s safe, there are too many bigger things to worry about. Politicians will be corrupt and will try to line their pockets until the end of time. If we crack down on food, politicians may start cutting corners somewhere else that really matters, like safety.

    *in value for money, but the food is not a health hazard.

  5. Welcome to America. This sort of thing has gone on since the Sumerians, Greeks and Romans, but they were pikers compared to the amount of money sloshing around today. Reasonable gun control, basic health coverage, decent schools…all sorts of things that make a functional society have been opposed by strong arm lobby groups for decades. Political parties don’t matter, politicians who claim they are going to clean things up are either liars or fools, and the rot grows.

    Eisenhower warned about how money flowed from Washington to industrial and the military (and now those profiting from our security state obsession) and their influence on government. But ever since the Citizens United decision (and Congress’ failure to over ride it) this has gotten much worse as the circle has closed. The feds allocate, the private groups pick it up, and then they throw some back as virtual bribes. Meanwhile everyone loses faith in a government that is truly for the people. This is just one small example of the systematic corruption that could well destroy this country.

  6. Nice write up Gary. @bobby there is an AA lounge on the C terminal side but not much help to United or Delta folks. There is a T2 priority pass lounge and restaurant but again not much help to T1 folks since the Pasta House (outside security closed).

  7. You act surprised. I think Marriott even had a hand in this previously while they butchered the Roy Rogers brand at BWI. LGA IS THE WORST! Even the bottled water is branded low grade.

  8. Lol- Agreed – Airport food & the concessionaires who provide said alleged nourishment do mostly “suck”- “Passengers Suffering” is clearly over dramatic- Its certainly an inconvenience & generally a common trait of most domestic airports…The food quality is often directly proportional to the size of the city/town/airport. I believe one would be delusional to believe the availability of airport dining should be anything other than a minor convenience and certainly never in the “fine dining” category.
    There are certainly more strategic and clearly more impacting issues for most of us than conjuring up situations for accusing local governments & politicians for the lack of Fine Dining at the freaking airport- a very self absorbing suggestion IMHO.

  9. In Chicago, where the city motto was changed to “where’s mine?” by the first Mayor Daley, at least Union Station offered a variety of restaurant facilities operated by Fred Harvey (provider of first class railway meals), from upscale cafeteria and coffee shop to the elegant Golden Lion.

    I remember through the 1960s dining from table d’hôte menus at the Golden Lion, while waiting for trains delayed in blizzards (but not cancelled like Amtrak). Funny how first class passengers and their guests always demanded properly prepared first class meals, unwilling to settle for tasteless frozen fast food. Even today, the famous Oyster Bar operates a superb restaurant in Grand Central Terminal.

    Indeed, their was a time before Amtrak when the railroads actually operated epicurean dining cars in the departing depot, opened during lunch and dinner, or, e.g., the famous All Pullman “Super Chief” serving a complete dinner between Chicago-Joliet, where the passengers jumped off.

    Today, their is no sanctuary for the air traveler to escape to; just as Amtrak has embraced a persona of mediocricy to complement its dirty windows.

  10. Why not have the dept of transportation look into airport contract corruption.

    Hey Mayor Pete, do you have any jurisdictional pull?

  11. Look at home Gary, it’s beyond frustrating that AUS has Delaware North operating most of its “local brands”.
    Taco deli in Austin ABIA is the absolute worst representation of what can go wrong when a local company allows their brand to be operated by a concession company

  12. You act surprised. I think Marriott even had a hand in this previously while they butchered the Roy Rogers brand at BWI. LGA IS THE WORST! Even bottled water is branded low-grade.

  13. Tilley is a lifelong Republican and is making money on this (“lobbying”, aka bribing). No surprises here. Also no surprises this is not mentioned in the article.

  14. Jared, irrelevant to the discussion. I’ve met people who were high school dropouts who were far more knowledgeable about how the world worked than those with multiple degrees. Don’t mind answering though. Ph.D., 2 master’s, one in the physical and one in the social sciences, lots of other training, such as EMT, commercial pilot, every FCC license, etc. Visited 122 countries. Again, none relevant when one sees a country failing due to corruption–and again, parties are irrelevant where money is concerned. I will say though that today’s Republican party does remind me of the stories my mother told about being in Mussolini’s Italy.

  15. @Chad you blame it on Democrats. But I live in Texas where the GOP is solidly in control and solidly corrupt. BOTH parties are corrupt. And as soon as you realize that, the better off America will be. We really need to start taking all of the politicians to task for the corruption.

  16. I lived in STL for 4 years….too long. Lots of corruption there. But then most American Politicians are corrupt, if they are part of a political party. In the STL case, the state could easily fix the problem, but won’t because they too profit from it.

  17. Not sure on airport. Delaware North at Busch II was stellar, thanks to constant checking by Civic Center Corporation. Cold beer, Hot Hot Dogs, Fast friendly service. All out the window these days.

  18. As a former St. Louisan, the airport is an embarrassment since TWA’s departure. Once again Kansas City figured it out and is replacing KCI/ MCI next spring. Lambert replacement plans will drag on and on and on and won’t be “fixed” until 2030 or beyond. Eat before you arrive (Nice Marriott across the street). My former home continues to decline as it thinks it’s still the 1800’s.

  19. The whole airport system in America is a joke. For those who have travel outside United States, you know what airports like in Asia. ICN, NRT, HND, KIX, HKG, PEK, PVG, SIN, CAN, Im sure there are more. Our front door welcoming foreigners are embarrassments to our country. I’ve yet been to a jet bridge that’s comparable. They are always musty dusty, sometimes even wet. Do they ever clean them?

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