In the last few years, in-flight food has gotten better. But celebrity and Michelin-star chefs have also been flocking to the terminal in a bid to transform airport-side dining; fantastic meals can be eaten while you wait to board.

The latest airport to join this trend is London’s Gatwick, the second largest in the UK and the first in the world to have a restaurant by chef Jamie Oliver, an Italian concept called Jaime’s, which opened in early July. The smell of pizza from a wood-fired oven, freshly baked bread, homemade jams and gourmet coffee now wafts around Gatwick’s North Terminal. There may be a lack of proper cutlery (due to security constraints, only scaled down knives and forks are allowed, but the food is certainly more sophisticated than the fast food chains and grab-and-go outlets that currently grace the terminal.

Earlier in 2012, the stylish Spanish tapas concept Bar Pulpo by MoVida opened in Melbourne Airport’s Terminal 2, helmed by Australian celebrity chef Frank Camorra who runs the popular MoVida restaurant in Melbourne. Bar Pulpo follows in the footsteps of another top notch eatery in Melbourne’s airport; Cafe Vue, by acclaimed chef Shannon Bennett of Vue de Monde restaurant fame, opened in early 2011 and offers Gallic-style cuisine.  

“In recent times, there’s been a massive shift towards healthier eating and snacking, with a focus on fresh food. That’s been apparent on the high street and it is increasingly being mirrored in airports,” said Dan Einzig, founder of Mystery, a UK-based restaurant branding agency that has helped develop several restaurant groups, including the Giraffe restaurants that are found in many UK airports.

Previous to Jamie Oliver’s foray into terminal cuisine, there have been several attempts to revitalise airport meals. Gordon Ramsay pioneered the concept when he opened Plane Food in 2008 in Heathrow’s Terminal 5; Beatriz Sotelo, a Michelin-star chef from La Coruña presides over the kitchen at El Madroño in Madrid's Terminal 4; Porta Gaig by veteran chef Carles Gaig brought traditional Catalan cuisine to Barcelona’s Terminal 1 at the end of 2009; and New York’s JFK Airport is home to Aeronuova, an Italian concept by celebrity chef Mark Ladner.  

At Malaga Airport in southern Spain, two-Michelin-starred Dani Garcia’s La Moraga is even attracting local residents for dinner -- an unimaginable concept a decade ago -- by serving Andalucían fare, including cold tapas made of anchovies and oxtail, just outside the security gates.

Many airport operators have been encouraging restaurateurs to build exceptional examples of their brand, since these spaces guarantee large amounts of traffic. But as much as high-end airport dining presents an opportunity for restaurateurs, it also poses some challenges.

Many open before the first flight takes off at dawn and don’t close their doors until the last plane leaves at midnight. It’s a busy environment, and everything -- from the chef to the balsamic vinegar -- has to go through security. “Reassuring customers that they won’t have to wait long for their gourmet food is also a big issue,” explained Einzig. “The way the restaurant is built can influence how fast the service is delivered, so this needs to be taken into account from the outset when the branding and interior is being designed.”

Shonalee King Johnson, manager of communications at the Nassau Airport Development Company in the Bahamas added, “Restaurant servers are trained to ask the amount of time customers have before their flight boards. Servers then make recommendations based on if there is a 20-minute window or two hours.”