Why Does a Plastic-Wrapped Turkey Sandwich Cost $15 at the Airport?
We filed a public records request, but the Port Authority is treating airport pricing like a state secret.
5:09 PM EDT on April 13, 2023
You've arrived at the airport two hours before your flight, security wasn't bad, and now you're at your gate, but you're hungry. You find a CIBO Express Gourmet Market kiosk filled with prepackaged food, hoping to minimize the hit on your bank account, and your eyes fall on a row of turkey sandwiches wrapped in plastic, looking a bit pale in the fluorescent light. The cost: $14.99, or more.
Food, drinks, and other goods sold at each of the region's three airports must adhere to strict price standards established by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which limit costs to "street pricing" plus an additional 10 percent. This means, generally, that a turkey sandwich sold at an airport cannot cost significantly more than a comparable turkey sandwich in the NYC metro area.
Fair enough. New York City is an expensive place, and running a business out of an airport presents unique challenges. But this standard raises another question: If retailers like CIBO Express (and its parent company OTG, the main dining and retail operator for some of the country's largest airports, including LaGuardia, Newark, and JFK) are indeed following the Port Authority's rules, then who are these metro-area retailers charging $13.50 ($13.50 plus 10 percent = $14.99) for an unremarkable, prepackaged turkey sandwich on sliced bread?
The Port Authority's price standards require vendor comparisons to include factors like weight, preparation, and quality, so a Court Street Grocers made-to-order $17.50 roast turkey sandwich on freshly-baked bread should not help set the price of a cellophane sack. Neither should those whopper $24.95 Second Avenue Deli sandwiches, or the ham sandwiches at Zabar's that cost $16 bucks.
Maybe it's Pret-a-Manger—their gussied-up chicken salad and avocado sandwich (with mayo made from cage-free eggs!) goes for $13 in Midtown. Except that per Port Authority rules, vendors who want to charge street pricing plus 10 percent must set their price "based on the average of three lowest prices for Comparable Products at the approved Comparable Concession Locations" (emphasis theirs).
We asked the Port Authority which three "comparable" sandwiches are setting the price of CIBO's humble $14.99 turkey sandwich. After all, these are just prices of turkey sandwiches and where they are sold; it's inherently public information. But neither the Port Authority nor OTG would tell us.
"We are not going to disclose the names of individual merchants," Port Authority spokesperson Thomas Toupousis wrote to Hell Gate in an email, "and would note that comparable concessions are unique to each airport concessionaire and based on an array of data, including brand where applicable, level of service, specific type of cuisine and price rating as shown by Google or Yelp."
A spokesperson for OTG also did not provide the comparison sandwiches when we asked for them, but noted that the sandwich prices cited in the tweets above got the Port Authority's blessing.
"The comparable vendors presented in our street pricing analysis are fully vetted and approved by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to ensure compliance," the spokesperson said.
For a moment in time, it looked as if the Port Authority would have to be more transparent about airport pricing. These standards exist because in the summer of 2021, Brookynite Cooper Lund tweeted a photo of a $27.85 Sam Adams being sold at an OTG-operated bar in LaGuardia airport. Outrage ensued, and the Port Authority's Office of the Inspector General vowed to probe the issue and perform an audit. In May of 2022, the Port Authority issued a press release, stating that the obscene beer in question had an "erroneously added surcharge," that only 25 people paid it, and that those people were refunded their entire tabs. According to the release, the OIG also (deep breath) "further determined certain aspects of the previous iteration of the street pricing policy were too vague and lacked adequate specificity to enable concessionaries [sic] to know with precision what they were expected to do to comply with the policy." And so the agency published the new standards that apply today.
So what was in the Port Authority OIG's audit? How did the OIG determine, for example, that their previous policy was "too vague"? Which vendors were in compliance and which were not? We wanted to find out.
The MTA's IG, the NYPD's IG, and the state's IG all make their reports available to the public, so Hell Gate asked the Port Authority if we could see this one. But our public records request was denied, so we filed an appeal, with the help of our attorneys at Ballard Spahr, the firm that successfully defended the New York Times against Sarah Palin's libel suit. The Port Authority rejected our appeal last month, on the grounds that the document was exempt from disclosure because it constituted "inter-agency communications." (Read our appeal here and the Port Authority's answer here. We're currently weighing our options on whether to sue.)
The Port Authority is bound by both New York and New Jersey open records laws, so we called up New York State's Committee on Open Government, the state watchdog for public records access, to ask if our request was reasonable. Jake Forken, an Excelsior Fellow at COOG, told Hell Gate that our appeal was "on point," and that the Port Authority elided a crucial part of the exemption that they are using to withhold these records.
"In their denial, they really only address one facet of the exception to those exemptions. They say the report doesn't represent final agency action. Of course, they'd still be required to disclose any factual data or final agency determinations whether there was action or not," Forken said. "And it looks like from some of the quotes from their press release, they made quite a few determinations in that report."
How do we know this? Because the press release literally says the OIG "determined" and "substantiated" things.
"The presumption of [New York's Freedom of Information Law] is that everything is subject to access, with limited exceptions," Forken said. "FOIL leans towards public access."
New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the state's open records requests, declined to comment on why our request was denied
The Port Authority insists that the public does not have the right to see the OIG's review of publicly displayed prices at their airports. "To protect the integrity of the fact-finding process, as well as agency deliberations, the Port Authority’s longstanding policy is to maintain the confidentiality of these types of Inspector General investigative reports," Toupousis, the Port Authority spokesperson, told us. Toupousis added that prices of popular items are spot-checked every quarter, and insisted that the agency takes customer complaints seriously.
It's unclear how robust the OIG's investigation was. Lund told Hell Gate that despite being the person who set off the beer firestorm, he was never contacted by the Port Authority or its OIG. He did get a DM from OTG offering to pick up his next tab, but he hasn't taken them up on it.
"This should be an easy process to be transparent about," Lund said of the OIG report. "Either Port Authority is not [releasing] it because they know that their process wasn't good, which is entirely possible, or they're not [releasing] it just to say 'fuck you,' which is also possible and also bad from a government agency."
Lund added, "The cost of airport food matters, because if the Port Authority isn't bothering to deal with this, what else is the Port Authority not bothering to do?"
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Chris is an editor at Hell Gate. He spent nearly a decade working for Gothamist, and his work appears in New York Magazine and Streetsblog NYC.
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