Philadelphia Airport’s $30 Million Transformation

philadelphia-airport

You’ve probably heard about the huge expansion at Newark Airport and now, it’s Philadelphia Airport’s turn. In an article by Philadelphia Business Journal, Alison Burdo discusses the $30 million overhaul to PHL’s Terminal B that’s projected to be completed by 2018:

“A $30 million “game changer” will bring eight new dining destinations, 1,000 iPads and 15 tech-driven gate lounges to Philadelphia International Airport – a transformation that will offer those passing through PHL an authentic taste of the city and a peek into the future of air travel.

Officials with the airport, American Airlines and hospitality company OTG will formally announce the massive renovation of Terminal B Wednesday afternoon in an airport hangar where guests can sample food from the award-winning chefs now bringing their cuisine to PHL.

Terminal B, where American exclusively operates, has had only minor updates since its construction in the 1960s.

“When this project is done, this will be the number one destination at the airport,” said Rhett Workman, American Airlines managing director of airport and government affairs.

American is in the middle of a $3 billion investment in enhancing customers’ experiences at 335 airports, including in Philadelphia and its eight other hubs, around the country, he said.

Those changes – new ticketing and check-in kiosks, revamped lounges, among other improvements – are unlikely to cause jaws to drop. But the newly conceived Terminal B – funded primarily by OTG – just might, said Workman, calling the airline hospitality company “the jewel in the crown.”

“This allows us to personalize the Philadelphia airport experience in a new way,” he said.

“This will be a game changer for us,” added Airport CEO Chellie Cameron.

Construction is anticipated to start in the early fall with an expected completion date in mid-2018.

Cameron, who has spent a chunk of the first four months in her new role assessing how to improve PHL customers’ experience, said once the overhaul is finished, it will make a “very quick impact” on passengers.

“I hope everyone comes screaming back saying we want more of this,” she added.

Dining

OTG will introduce eight new eateries to the airport with this project, bolstering PHL’s culinary roster with the help of two Top Chef winners and six others whose resumes include local favorites Tria, Laurel, Le Virtu, Sbraga and more.

Rick Blatstein, OTG’s CEO, said they considered “rising stars and diamonds in the rough” for the roles and made incorporating a genuine Philly food experience a priority.

“They work with us to create these new concepts,” Blatstein explained. “We create the restaurants for American Airlines, for the customer in Philadelphia and for the mindset in Philadelphia.”

The new dining destinations and the locals behind them are:

  • Liberty Prime: Steakhouse from Chef Kevin Sbraga, the winner of Top Chef: Season 7 and owner of Sbraga
  • Baba Bar:Mediterranean-style cafe from Chef Nicholas Elmi, winner of Top Chef: Season 11, and the chef/owner of Laurel.
  • LOVE Grille: Comfort food from Chef Erin O’Shea, one of the country’s only female barbecue pit mistresses and chef/partner at Percy Street Barbecue
  • Noobar: Japanese ramen and sushi from Chef Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka, a self-taught sushi chef and chef/owner of Zama and coZara.
  • Boule Cafe: Bakery and cafe from Chef Anne Coll, executive chef at Whip Tavern in Chester County and previously the executive chef at Meritage.
  • CIBO Italian Bistro: An Italian restaurant already operated by OTG, an expanded menu will come from Chef Joe Cicala, executive chef at Le Virtu.
  • Mezzogiorno: Neopolitan style pizzafrom Chef Stalin Bedon, owner of Nomad Pizza, which began as a food truck before expanding to 2 brick-and-mortar locations in Philly and 2 others in New Jersey.
  • Germantown Biergarten: A beer garden, which pulls from the northwest Philly neighborhood, from John Myerow and Michael McCaulley, owners of Tria.

Coffee shops and other retail shops will also be scattered throughout the terminal.

Each concept will have a full menu, around 60 to 80 items, with restaurant staff cooking dishes from scratch, Blastein said.

It will also provide a sample of the culinary offerings available in the city to those on layovers, possibly leading those who would otherwise only know Philly’s airport a reason to return to the city for a true vacation, he suggested.

Price points at the eight restaurants will be on par with what customers would pay at similar establishments outside the airport.

It’s a pricing strategy, Blastein says, OTG learned in Philadelphia in 1996 when the company launched by taking over a dozen concessions from Aramark as it exited the airport.

“We don’t believe our customers are our captured audience,” said the CEO, who is originally from Northeast Philly. “They are our guests.”

With some of the city’s most well-known and well-regarded culinary talent, the menus will be a draw, but the iPads will be the first thing diners notice.

“Every single seat in every single restaurant will have a iPad in front of it,” Blatstein said.

The iPads function in 21 different languages. Customers place their customizable orders through the devices, which offer visual menus, as well as the ability to track one’s flight, surf the web and play games – some that even offer prizes, he said.

Suprisingly, the added technology will not negatively impact food service jobs at Philadelphia International.

“We don’t replace server staff with the iPads,” Blatstein said. “We enhance the server position and have them spend even more time on hospitality.”

Roughly 150 employees work for OTG and its subtenants in Terminal B. When OTG has brought comparable “experiences” to other airports, the number of workers doubled, Blatstein said.

“When we create a full experiential terminal, our sales are roughly 50 percent higher than the average of the top 50 airports in North America,” Blatstein said.

So the iPads bring about more business for the terminal’s restaurants and retail shops, creating additional work and the need for more employees.

Asked if putting the tablets at the tables would hinder impromptu conversations among passengers, Blatstein said that has yet to occur in the 11 airports where OTG has already put its stamp. Philadelphia International Airport already has 110 iPads in Terminal F at Local, which features Iron Chef Jose Garces’ cuisine.

Describing what he calls “the lean,” Blatstein said the iPads creates a more social environment than anticipated when someone sees something on the tablet and leans over to show their neighbor.

“It is important for customers to interact,” the OTG CEO said.

Technology

Reimagining Terminal B with an eye towards technology doesn’t stop with the restaurants.

For the travelers who head straight from security to their gate, iPads will also be at 75 to 80 percent of the seats at the terminal’s 15 gates.

Nervous about a flight change? You can stay planted in your seat at the gate and use the devices to order food, beverages or retail items. The purchases will then be delivered.

Customers will also have access to more than 1,000 power ports once the redesign is complete.

The additions also mean newly created jobs, although Blatstein declined to provide an estimated figure.

The tech might be a turn off for some who remember the good ol’ days before smartphones and the Internet, but American Airlines’ Workman says the upgrades will make the airport more competitive.

“If you look at airport trends of the future, this is where they are headed,” Workman said.

Last year, 31.4 million passengers traversed through PHL. Travelers making a pit stop in the airport between flights account for 45 percent of the airport’s passenger traffic, according to PHL.

“More and more passengers are making choices of flights based on the connecting airport,” said PHL’s Cameron. “If all other things are equal, price and schedule, then you start to think about those intangibles. I want to go through Philadelphia because I know I’ll have a great meal.”

Upping the appeal of PHL with Terminal B’s reinvention “will make us more competitive,” Cameron said. “That might tip it over the edge from an airport where they don’t know what to expect.”

Construction

With plans to handle the work in phases, both Workman and Cameron said travelers should not feel a significant impact during the approximately 18 to 24 months of construction.

Cameron added that any disruptions customers may experience will be worthwhile in the long-run.

“If we are ever going to go from good to great, we have got to go through that temporary period of inconvenience,” she said.

The exact details of each phase are still being sorted out.

Some parts of Terminal B will be refaced temporarily, said Blatstein, offering passengers a preview of the project’s full scope.

OTG already has a significant presence at the airport, operating eight dining options, along with the Garces-led Local, across several terminals.

The opportunity to transform an entire terminal – at the airport where OTG got its start 30 years ago – gave the company a chance to return to its roots.

“A lot of of us from OTG are from Philly,” Blatstein said. “This is a proud moment, for all our crew members.””

*Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org