We all expect to pay a bit extra for a beer or a sandwich at the airport. But when a glass of Samuel Adams Summer Ale costs nearly $30, things really have gotten out of control.
That’s why New York officials have announced a crackdown on food and drink prices at the region’s airports, where vendors can’t charge more than “street prices” – what you’d pay locally outside the airport – plus 10%.
“Nobody should have to fork over such an exorbitant amount for a beer,” said Kevin O’Toole, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the airports, in a press release. The new measures, he said, “make it crystal clear that all prices at concessions will be routinely monitored to ensure they are aligned with the regional marketplace”.
The 10% figure itself isn’t new, but officials have clarified the rules and stepped up monitoring after some egregious violations emerged – all thanks to a single tweet by a young Brooklynite.
Last July, Cooper Lund found himself with some time to kill at New York’s LaGuardia airport, which hosted 15.6 million travelers last year. He thought he’d grab a beer – until he saw the menu.
The vendor was charging $27.85 for Samuel Adams Summer Ale on draught, with other beers ranging from about $13 to $21. Instead of buying one, Lund tweeted a picture of the alarming price list.
“I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous,’” Lund tells the Guardian. “I didn’t tag anybody. I didn’t tag LaGuardia, I just sort of sent it for like the enjoyment of my followers, people that I know.”
About a month later, he got a call from a journalist at the New York outlet the City, and it blew up from there.
Not all the feedback was welcome. “Every time the story gets traction, I get a bunch of – I think of them as Angry Responsibility Dads who are like, ‘Well, if you don’t want it to cost that much, then you shouldn’t be paying for it,’” he says. But “it’s not like you can bring in your own stuff, man. TSA makes you pour that all out when you get in.”
There are other reasons for high airport prices, too. Staffing an establishment for long airport hours is expensive, as industry insiders told Eater in 2015. Rent is high and recruiting is difficult. “People don’t say, ‘I want to be a chef so I’m going to go to an airport and cook,” Adam Sappington, of the Country Cat at Portland international airport, told the site.
Lund, a 33-year-old systems administrator for a non-profit, never heard directly from the Port Authority, and its announcement last week of the tightened rules – which specifically mentions his tweet – came as a surprise.
The agency says the tweet prompted an investigation that found that “certain beer prices included an erroneously added surcharge on top of an inflated base price”, leading to 25 customers being charged “the totally indefensible amounts of $23 or $27 (depending on size) for a beer”.
The concessions operator in question, OTG, refunded the 25 customers identified in the review, according to the Port Authority. After Lund’s tweet, the company had tweeted that the Samuel Adams price had been posted incorrectly.
Under the Port Authority’s latest rules, concession companies must identify “comparable concession locations” outside the airport to prove their prices fit the “street pricing” policy. A chain establishment like Dunkin’, for instance, must be compared with other branches in the metropolitan area.
Other airports have similar pricing measures in place. For real value, Lund salutes Portland international airport in Oregon, which requires vendors to charge no more than they do outside the airport. Baltimore/Washington international airport also claims to use street prices at its restaurants, while Philadelphia international airport says its prices are “comparable” to those of outside establishments.
But many travelers won’t be so lucky. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, the US’s busiest travel hub according to a ranking last year, recently moved from a street pricing-plus-10% model to street pricing-plus-15%, an airport spokesperson told the Guardian. That means, for the 75.7 million people who passed through last year, a beer that would cost $7 on the street could run about $8.
Denver, also among the busiest airports in the country with 58.8 million travelers last year, allows 10% over street pricing, a representative said. And in the US’s second-most-populous city, passengers at Los Angeles international airport (48 million passengers in 2021) can be charged street price plus 18%, said a spokesperson. Chicago, the next-biggest city, allows street pricing plus 10% at O’Hare and Midway airports, according to its aviation department.
Of course, those are just the official regulations. As Lund says of LaGuardia: “The rules that were already in place clearly didn’t do anything.
“It’s not the $27 beer, that’s just the one that sticks out. It’s the $20 beer, it’s the $18 beer, it’s everything being ridiculously priced across the board. And we kind of accept that as being normal for an airport experience,” Lund says.
“This is something where there does need to be oversight.”