Not long ago, you could get by on a bag of peanuts. Barring peanuts, you would get a bag of "pretzels," small salty things that are not so much pretzels as "pretzel remainders." For the extra $500 cost of a first-class seat, some airlines would give you bags of trail mix, presuming, perhaps, that their pretzel ruse would be lost on a person of such discernment. But regardless: With your little bag of salt and cottonseed oil, and a plastic glass of really bad wine, you could fortify yourself against the airport's pervasive smell of Cinnabon -- for reasons of health, aesthetics, or the promise of home cooking ahead.
Travel now, though, and you'll likely get to the airport two hours early (in Phoenix; in a city with obvious national significance, count on three or four). Lines at the metal detector will look dauntingly long, so you'll queue up early; remove your shoes; and hand over any small metal implements that could be reasonably construed as instruments of terror, such as the tweezers you use to pluck nose hairs. Thus cleared, you will arrive at your gate only to find that your flight has been interminably delayed and that, come to think of it, you're pretty hungry.
There are 66 restaurants in Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport: some in the lobbies; some on the concourses, past security. Passenger numbers are down -- in September at Sky Harbor, there were 25 percent fewer fliers than in September 2000 -- but time spent at the airport is up. So airport businesses are holding their own. Exact figures were not available at the time of this writing, but according to Paula Kucharz, who is the airport's business development manager, "for the most part, sales of food and beverages are strong.
"People are spending more time at the airport, and because of that, eating becomes more a part of the travel experience," she said.
In general, restaurants on the concourses have fared better than lobby businesses in the wake of September 11.
"There's a big concern about getting through security," Kucharz observed. "People will want to do that first. So there are a lot of people stuck on the concourses. . . . Those restaurants are doing very well. The lobby stores took a little longer to come back."
Nine of the airport's 66 restaurants are of the sit-down type, like the FOX Sports Bar, a recent addition to the Terminal 4 "A" Concourse; or the Papago Cafe, which is in that terminal's lobby. There is also a Johnny Rockets, in Terminal 3. The remainder are fast-food façades that are reminiscent of a shopping mall food court: TCBY; Burger King; Pizza Hut. You know, the usual suspects.
"It's just Burger King," said one construction worker (who did not want to be identified) when I asked him about his lunch. He and his companions, who work and eat at the airport every day, were sitting in the Terminal 4 lobby one Wednesday around noon. A few of them carried lunch pails with bologna sandwiches from home. The man who did not looked down at his hamburger.
"Yeah, just Burger King," he repeated.
Nevertheless, there has been a trend among airports to evince some regional culture in their business lineup. In Phoenix, this has been manifested in two ways: by the preponderance of gift shops selling chile products, and by the appearance of locally owned restaurants. Of the latter, Sky Harbor has several. There's a Paradise Bakery and Cafe, just like the one in Scottsdale Fashion Square. There's a Blue Burrito, and a Oaxaca. There are plans for a Honey Bear's BBQ.
"We try to strike a balance between national brands and local concerns," said Kucharz. "Cookie-cutter is not what we're after here."
In the same way, the airport attempts to balance healthful options with sinful ones. Recently, the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine ranked airports according to the percentage of restaurants in each that offered at least one high-fiber, low-fat option. Not surprisingly, San Francisco swept the field with 96 percent; Sky Harbor scored just 58. Kucharz suggested that the airport is not wholly to blame.
"The thing that's very interesting about airport food is that a lot of people are on vacation and want to indulge," she said. "They're splurging. People say they want to eat healthy, but look at Cinnabon. One Cinnabon has enough calories for a day and there are days when they can't make enough of them."
Since September 11, many airlines have suspended meal service -- five-hour flight or no, all you're getting is a bag of "pretzels." So prepackaged food, like boxed pizzas and salads, has been in high demand. No problem, said Kucharz. At the airport's urging, Sky Harbor restaurants have been offering more and more carryout options for the past several years.
The next time you're in Terminal 4, bemoaning its tight new security, pause over your California Pizza Kitchen pie to consider the less fortunate: people who are at the airport every day. Not just passengers but airport employees, too, have faced unusual new demands. Forget slicing those mushrooms on-site -- not even kitchen knives are permitted on the concourses, so restaurants must chop their ingredients elsewhere. It is, to say the least, a logistical challenge.
"The whole distribution service had to be evaluated," Kucharz said. "We're very happy when our retailers are having a good day, because tell you what, they've worked hard for it."