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How iPads are changing food service in airports around the country

When you think of an airport restaurant, you may picture a crowded Burger King, but times are changing. Airport dining is improving fast, and many airports are updating their facilities with state-of-the-art restaurants with delicious new food – and a few thousand iPads.

United Airlines’ Terminal C at Newark Airport (New Jersey) is one of those airports. Right now, it’s being renovated by OTG Management, which oversees 200-plus food and retail operations in 11 North American airports. The company spending $120 million to overhaul the terminal, adding more than 55 dining options, many of them with a superstar chef attached to the menu. Besides a new look designed by architect David Rockwell, a major part of that spending is to deploy nearly 6,000 iPads and upgrade the IT system to support them.

It’s about creating a better customer experience in an industry that’s facing tough times and rising costs.

For passengers, the customized iPads serve several functions. In place of waiters, customers at each dining facility can view the menu items, and place and pay for their orders (each iPad is equipped with a credit card scanner, and is secured to the table). As you wait for your order, you can browse the Web, maps, and select apps, though the UI is locked, so you can’t download Candy Crush to pass some time. Information is also displayed in multiple languages, which is a great feature for international passengers. For the Newark iPads, OTG added a new feature that uses the iPad camera to scan the QR code from your United mobile boarding pass, which then pulls up flight information. Frequent fliers who are members of United’s MileagePlus program can also use miles to pay for food.

But the iPads are more than just about convenience and getting passengers to spend more before they take off. Outside of Apple’s retail stores, OTG has the largest consumer-facing deployment of iPads in the world. While they may not always be the latest models, it’s still a major capital investment — one that actually helps its bottom line.

“The iPads are more expensive, but the opportunity it affords us … we know that it can deliver the results,” says OTG’s CTO, Albert Lee.

During a sneak-peek at OTG’s office in New York City, prior to United’s official unveiling, the company’s management told us that the iPads are actually helping them lift revenues while decreasing costs due to labor and voids (transactions that weren’t completed or orders that weren’t entered correctly). In fact, since OTG deployed the technology at other airports, it has helped the company minimize voids to 0.5 percent and increase revenue by 30 percent. The system also revolves around cashless transactions, which cut down on voids. It can also help restaurants better dispatch wait staff, and helps the kitchen change the menu on the fly when required. The iPads aren’t replacing traditional servers, but they are cutting down on human error, demonstrating how getting a right order can save a lot of money.

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“The traditional method of taking food orders is like a game of telephone,” Lee says. “The system eliminates that. It equalizes service. It’s not replacing people, but to ensure accuracy and core hospitality values.

“The front of the house (iPad) influences the back of the house,” Lee adds. “It can help you manage staff and monitor where things are. It deals with a situation [that exists in the restaurant industry] today, where meals aren’t delivered in a timely order.” (During a recent flight out of Newark, we found that many of the wait staff had trouble figuring out the new system, down to simple iPad functions like pinch-to-zoom, tapping, and swiping. However, there were also plenty of OTG staff onsite, in case something goes awry.)

Part of the UI design is a recommendation engine that suggests food and drink items to the passenger. OTG says because the system is adaptable, it’s taking in all the customer data points learned, which it then uses to make those recommendations. OTG found that 25 percent of its sales were derived from it, and says it’s what differentiates its food service strategy from traditional hospitality.

In developing the system, ease-of-use was a big factor and why it went with the iPad. It’s also scalable and reliable. New apps, like games, can be added, and Apple does a better job supporting older devices than most companies that make Android-based tablets. The iPad helps improve the user experience while delivering results.

With iPad’s high-resolution ‘Retina’ display, OTG also knew the menus needed a visual element. Photography became a big deal, because it needed high-resolution images, which is why there are two food photographers who work with the kitchen staff to help illustrate those items. And to support those 6,000 iPads, OTG has increased the IT staff that’s onsite at Newark and reworked the wireless infrastructure, adding new access points throughout the terminal.

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The new iPads, which are also deployed at Delta’s terminals at both New York City’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, are OTG’s third-generation system. The concept started in November 2010 with the first-gen iPad. After OTG built out the system, it knew there was “something there” with the tablet. A second-generation system was rolled out at Delta’s terminal at LaGuardia. Prior to Newark, 6,000 iPads have already been deployed between four airports, and the company aims to install 6,000 iPads in the next 12 months.

Related: United Airlines flight attendants get iPhone 6 Plus handsets

“We’re disrupting the restaurant industry – in terms of restaurant tech, prior to this it hasn’t gone farther than a pager,” Lee says. “[The iPads] adapt to lifestyle of consumers; as for customer acceptance, people’s attention have changed over time and consumers are getting smarter. Ultimate, it’s about creating a better customer experience in an industry that’s facing tough times and rising costs, and new dining habits from the Millennial generation.”