As Concession Companies Deal With Staffing Shortages, Travelers Face Longer Lines At Austin's Airport
Throngs of travelers braving Austin's airport during a pandemic are facing a new test of their patience after enduring bag check and TSA security: long lines to buy a burger or a bottle of water.
A nationwide shortage of service industry workers is weighing on airport concessionaires across the country. The situation has become so dire at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport that the concession companies operating dozens of businesses in the departures terminal are sometimes poaching workers from each other, airport officials said.
Short staffing translates to slower service and reduced hours of operation as the businesses try to schedule employees during the most profitable times of day.
"The very few things that were open, the lines were super long," said Kierra Lanice Wray, a celebrity make-up artist who flew out of ABIA early Tuesday morning. "With me traveling so often, I've learned to pack snacks."
Despite the lines, Wray said she was "absolutely enamored" with the airport and the presence of an actual book store, BookPeople, in addition to the standard airport newsstands.
"I was like, 'Please open up! When do you guys open? I need to know,'" Wray said.
Austin's airport has won accolades from travelers and industry groups alike for how it draws flavors from the region with popular restaurants like Salt Lick BBQ, Haymaker and East Side Pies, and brings in long-time Austin retailers including Toy Joy and Tyler's Austin Warehouse.
Those local businesses don't operate their airport locations; they license the rights to one of three companies that operate food, beverage and retail services in airports nationwide: Delaware North Company, HMSHost and Paradies Lagardère. All three are short-staffed, Austin airport officials say.
ABIA's largest airport concession company, Delaware North, operates restaurants including Saxon Pub, Jo's Coffee and Amy’s Ice Cream. Delaware North had a 31% employee vacancy rate with 85 hires needed, according to a staff presentation before Austin's Airport Advisory Commission this month.
HMSHost — whose portfolio of airport businesses includes Parkside, 24 Diner and Zocalo Cafe — has 48% of positions unfilled and is looking to hire 48 people.
Paradies Lagardère, which includes Ruta Maya Coffee, Salvation Pizza and Thundercloud Subs among the dozen or so airport businesses it runs, has a 45% employee vacancy rate with 62 hires needed.
More than 14% of stores at the airport remain closed.
None of the three concession companies would comment for this story. But airport officials acknowledged travelers are waiting longer than normal at concession businesses.
"We are seeing lines," ABIA Chief Business and Finance Officer Mookie Patel said. "The morning peak [travel window] is the biggest challenge, but as we get into the afternoons, we still see lines" around lunch and dinner, he said.
The airport received an uptick in traveler complaints about food and beverage lines, but it has "tapered somewhat," Patel said.
Customer Service 'Isn't Always Fun'
Hiring and retention has been challenging for restaurants and stores nationwide in no small part because of the increased risk of viral exposure that consumer-facing employees must confront.
"Airport concession operators are no different, and in fact their challenges are even more unique than a traditional hospitality business," industry analyst and Atmosphere Research Group president Henry Harteveldt said.
Airports tend to be farther from residential areas and often lack fast and frequent public transportation. Austin's airport is slated to be the first stop on a new light-rail line to downtown, but that's not expected to be up and running until the end of this decade.
Prospective employees also need to undergo FBI fingerprint-based background checks and TSA threat assessments. Once hired, workers must pass through TSA security each day, which can be intrusive and time-consuming.
Then there are the customers.
"Let's admit it, working in a consumer service role serving the public isn't always fun," Harteveldt said. "If the pay is not compelling, some people are just going to say, 'You know what? I'll find a job somewhere else.'"
A Race To Recruit
Concessionaires at the airport pay at least $15 an hour for most jobs. A cocktail server position was posted at $5.40/hour plus tips. The job includes a $300 sign-on bonus, one of several incentives the concessionaires are offering. Some have offered to help with parking costs or to pay employees while they wait to obtain an ABIA security identification badge.
Airport staff this week facilitated the second of two "micro" hiring fairs for Paradies Lagardère. The company hired 16 people over both fairs, more than expected.
"They were extremely thrilled to have done that," Patel said.
But many more hires will be needed to get back up to full speed under timelines agreed upon by concessionaires and the airport, which has already dedicated more than $25 million in federal pandemic stimulus funds toward helping the businesses stay afloat.
Delaware North Company and Paradies Lagardère told airport officials they will reopen all stores by the end of August. HMSHost is vowing to reopen all stores by Nov. 1.
Got a tip? Email Nathan Bernier at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.