Finally! Apps to deliver food & merchandise to the gate

My “At the Airport” column for USA TODAY this month is about an airport amenity many travelers have been wishing for:

An app-powered service debuting this week at Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) — and a similar one set to roll out at San Diego International Airport (SAN) in August — allows passengers to order food, drinks and products that are for sale anywhere inside the airport and have the items delivered to them at the gate.

If gate delivery catches on, it could be a game-changer for the passenger experience and a big boost for the bottom line at airports.

Solving the ‘gate hugger’ problem

The developers of Airport Sherpa (now at BWI) and At Your Gate (soon at SAN) have research showing that American fliers are verified “gate huggers”: Once through the airport security checkpoint, a majority of travelers head straight for their gate, grab a seat in the hold area or nearby and stay put.

It doesn’t matter if their flight is leaving in an hour — or three.

For travelers, gate-hugging can be a problem because passengers who don’t stray from their gates miss out on the upgraded dining and shopping options now offered at many airports. Gate-hugging also means airport food and retail outlets miss out on potential sales. And it is rents and fees generated from those sales that make up an increasing percentage of the operating budgets at airports.

Bringing mobile carts stocked with snacks, sodas, magazines and other items into gate areas is one solution HMSHost has tried in an effort to serve gate-huggers in airports in Honolulu, Maui, Chicago (O’Hare) and Memphis.

Another strategy, first introduced in 2009 at JetBlue’s JFK Terminal 5 and now available in almost a dozen OTG-managed airport terminals in North America, is iPad-enhanced seating areas in gate hold areas where passengers can order food, drinks and products from nearby restaurants and shops.

But in an age in which people use their mobile phones to get pretty much anything delivered to their doorstep, being able to order something from the other side of the terminal, or from a restaurant or shop in a completely different terminal, is a welcome “Why hasn’t this already happened?” next step.

Sit down. Order up.

Airport Sherpa has partnered with airport retail and food concession operator Airmall to introduce on-demand gate-delivery service at BWI this week. The company plans to expand the service to other airports around the country in short order.

The service “will enhance the passenger experience and give travelers access to hundreds of stores across terminals,” said Patrick DellaValle, CEO of Airport Sherpa.

For passengers, it will mean “even more choices, more convenience and more ways to experience the numerous local, regional and national offerings here at BWI Marshall,” said Brett Kelly, vice president of Airmall Maryland. “Now someone traveling out of the D Concourse at BWI can order sushi from the A Concourse, and someone on the B Concourse can get a burger from the D Concourse, whereas before they did not have access between those concourses to go get it themselves,” Kelly said.

Gate-delivery service not only expands the reach of the potential passenger spend for airport vendors, “It can save a sale that might not have otherwise happened,” Kelly added.

The cost of convenience

The Airport Sherpa app is free to download, but there is a gate-delivery fee of $3.99 to $7.99, depending on how far the delivery person, or Sherpa, has to go to make a delivery in the airport.

Deliveries made by At Your Gate, rolling out in August at San Diego International Airport, will initially have a flat $6.99 delivery fee.

Airport Sherpa reps say tipping the delivery person is currently “not expected or accepted,” but tipping may eventually be offered via the app “to ensure that all transactions are cashless.”

At Your Gate plans to have a tipping option built into its app.

Both services promise to keep delivery time to a minimum.

Airport Sherpa says it will calculate delivery time for each order based on preparation time from the store and the time it will take the Sherpa to walk from the store to the delivery location. “We also have controls in place to prevent a customer from placing an order that would arrive very close to or after boarding time has begun,” DellaValle said.

At Your Gate plans to give travelers a 10-minute delivery window.

Will travelers bite?

Convenience will outweigh worries about delivery fees for many business travelers.

“I have spent more than my share of time running around airports looking for things I need during a business trip. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t love that service,” said Joel Horn, former president of Pacific Coast Canola.

“On a tight connection I would like this service, especially for a high-test shot of caffeine or a book,” said Rich McClear, a media adviser based in Sitka, Alaska. “And if I could get a quirky souvenir gift that is emblematic of the area, that would be cool.”

But some travelers don’t see a need for the service.

“I like to get up and walk around the airport, since I’ll be sitting for an entire flight,” said Jen Billock Young, a journalist based in Trevor, Wis. “I’m too cheap,” said Adam Woog, a writer and teacher from Seattle.

Not just a win for passengers

For the San Diego International Airport gate-delivery service, At Your Gate is partnering with Grab, a mobile-ordering app that currently lets travelers preorder food for pickup at 150 concessions in 18 airports. The team plans to offer gate delivery in other airports as well.

The At Your Gate project has the seal of approval from SAN’s passenger experience-oriented Innovation Lab and “the hope is that the service will provide convenience to passengers, flight crews and employees working at the airport and extend the reach of the individual concession beyond their front door,” said Rick Beliotti, SAN’s director of innovation and small business development.

“Gate delivery is a logical extension of the on-the-demand economy that up to now just hasn’t existed in airports,” said David Henninger, At Your Gate president/COO/CMO. “Traveling is really hard. I want this to be the bright spot in the day.”

 

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