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'iFood’ may be coming to MSP gates

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE
  • Star Tribune
  • January 27, 2011 - 11:07 PM

Harried and hungry travelers rushing through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport could soon use smart phones or iPads to order food for quick delivery to their departure gates.

But first, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and Delta Air Lines are having a food fight of sorts that could determine exactly how and where the technology is used.

As early as this spring, a passenger might use a special smart-phone application to order from the menus of airport restaurants, buying food electronically via credit card before going through security.

The traveler would get a confirmation of the order from the restaurant, which would deliver the order to the passenger's gate.

"Technology is bringing new potentials to the airport," said MAC Chairman Jack Lanners, who supports extending the contract of HMSHost, which made the smart-phone proposal. "I see lots of benefits and not much of a downside."

But the smart-phone plan has stalled amid objections from Delta, the dominant airport tenant, which has its own proposal for gate service that involves building small tables and using iPads to order food.

The MAC voted 7-3 in favor of extending the HMSHost contract last week, but it lacked a majority to pass. Several of the 15 commissioners were missing, and some who opposed the extension questioned whether the concession operation included sufficient representation of minorities. Commissioners who voted to extend the existing contract said that its overall financial terms were favorable and that the deal would not preclude some later combination of plans by the concessionaire and Delta for delivering food.

The MAC is expected to revisit the issues in coming weeks.

Part of a food service upgrade

The smart-phone idea is part of a broader proposal by the airport's largest concessionaire to upgrade food services further at MSP, which already has a reputation in travel reviews for superior food and other concessions.

Finding new ways to deliver meals and beverages is important to airports. Those concessions brought $13 million in revenue to MSP in 2009, the most recent figures available.

HMSHost's idea is to provide a menu app for smart phones at no cost, available at Apple and other stores. Password-accessible credit-card data would be loaded into the app, and it could be used anywhere in the airport.

The confirmation from the restaurant would include verification that the order is on the way to a specific gate.

Whether the service would be extended to delivering alcoholic beverages to gate areas would depend on MAC approval.

HMSHost hopes to test its smart-phone service as early as this spring at MSP, its first such foray in the United States, said Joseph Waller, vice president of business development for the firm.

Delta's alternative is modeled after services at some of its gates at JFK and LaGuardia airports in New York.

"This, to Delta, is the next generation of concessions," said Mary Loeffelholz, a regional director for the airline. She said Delta insists that the company that builds eating tables in the gate areas does so without reducing overall seating.

Skepticism about seating

But MAC Commissioner Mike Landy was skeptical that replacing current seating with new seats and tables in the same gate areas would be comfortable for passengers.

"If you want to keep feeding people, the seating that you have ... will not accommodate people my size," Landy told Loeffelholz at a recent MAC meeting. "I will have to sit on a table. There's a little booth."

"You'd be surprised," replied Loeffelholz, adding that at the New York gates, "we saw people of all shapes and sizes in there."

"You're looking to generate more income," Landy continued. "Is it about income, or is it about ambience or both?"

"It's both," Loeffelholz said. "The big benefit Delta sees from this is the customers are staying closer to the gate, they're less antsy."

She asked commissioners to delay a decision for six months so that the options could be further investigated.

Landy, who voted for the HMSHost proposal, suggested that its smart-phone alternative might be more suitable for the limited space at the gates.

As part of the proposed deal extending the contract two to four years, HMSHost said it also would invest up to $5 million to replace two restaurants and help build a golf amusement. While the investments are expected to cost about $2.75 million, the concessionaire has pledged to give any remaining money to the airport.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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