Airport cuisine at the touch of a screen

By Chris Welch, CNNUpdated 21st December 2012
Food delivered to your gate at the touch of a screen? It sounds too good to be true, but it's happening at a handful or airports.
About 7,000 Apple iPads are being installed at La Guardia Airport in New York, Toronto Pearson International in Ontario and Minneapolis-St. Paul International in the Twin Cities in a collaboration between airport food and beverage provider OTG Management and Delta Air Lines.
In the Delta terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul, iPads at seats in the gate areas will give airline customers up-to-the-minute flight updates, as well as free access to the Internet. Plus, fliers waiting for their flights can order food from a selection of new restaurants in the terminal and have it delivered to the gate.
"If I'm going to spend $10 on a beer, I'd rather do it on an iPad," said Michael Card, who was traveling recently through Minneapolis-St. Paul, "because it's more fun, more exciting."
OTG Management has eliminated most of the chain restaurants and fast food options at the Minnesota airport in favor of restaurants with menus designed by chefs from the Twin Cities area. The same local concept is being applied at LaGuardia and Pearson airports.
"The goal behind this was to make travel better for travelers," OTG spokesman Sean Aziz said. "You have to get to the airport earlier now with new (security) measures, so why not be able to get to your gate, have a fresh meal, a great glass of wine, the convenience of an iPad, charging your devices? It was really just to make the little things better."
When the project is completed late next year, Minneapolis-St. Paul airport's Terminal G will play host to 12 unique restaurants. Each will also have an iPad at every seat.
IPads in the restaurants will offer color photos of each dish and will -- at least for the ordering aspect of your meal -- replace the need for a server. Hosts still play a role, OTG says, and servers will still see that you're taken carry of after they bring out your cooked order.
OTG Chief Technology Officer Albert Lee had his own hesitations about installing the iPads.
"There was a lot of fear that this would somehow reduce the customer service experience," Lee said, "but I think people appreciated the ability to order and feel in control of their environment. And I think they enjoyed having access to the internet."
Traveler Kurtis Zameck was waiting recently for his flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul and used the iPad to place an order.
"The first time I saw it, it was a little odd," Zameck said. "But I think after you use it once or twice, it's pretty user-friendly."
And he didn't find that the service aspect of the experience suffered.
Many travelers seemed pleased with the changes. Some said they liked the ability to check stocks or to stay up to speed on their flight departure, and parents said it was nice because pre-loaded games like tic-tac-toe and checkers gave their kids something to do.
But not everyone shared those sentiments. One man who was hurrying to finish his food and catch his flight called it "impersonal."
"I prefer the personal touch. I like dealing with people, but the service was good," he added.
Another passenger said the system was a little confusing at first.
"The first time I ordered a drink, it was a gin and tonic, and I didn't see the tonic, so I (accidentally) ordered a double gin. I had to actually go back to the bartender to get them to put tonic water in it. ... But once you get used to it, I think it's fine."
While OTG's iPads replace the need for servers to take the initial order back to the kitchen, Lee insists that it isn't eliminating restaurant jobs. They say they're merely "changing how we deal with service."
"Instead of waiters coming to take your order and going back and entering things (in the computer) ... we now have servers more geared toward our concierge experience."
And what about the security of the devices? Lee says the custom Web browser has been designed so that any personal data entered -- whether it be login info for Facebook or your online bank account -- is completely wiped clean with every press of the home button.
"We've designed this to take into account that you're still inside an airport," Lee said. "We want you to feel comfortable. We want you to, in a lot of ways, forget that you're inside an airport. But you still have to board a flight, so we'll remind you about your flight."
You can check out the changes now at Minneapolis-St. Paul and LaGuardia. Pearson's iPads will debut in early 2013.