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Why Coffee and Air Travel Don't Mix

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[Photos: Liz Clayton]

If there's ever a time coffee is needed, it's while taking to the skies early in the morn, or trying to revive a weary self in time to meet your destination with open arms. Why, then, must air travelers be forced to suffer in the true purgatories of awful coffee that are our airplanes and airports?

Though a furtive attempt was made in 2010 by a national concessions company named OTG Management to install state-of-the-art cafes in airports, complete with skilled baristas (you'll still find A Taste of World Bean at JFK, LGA, and MSP), the world of high-class coffee for those bound for the skies remains one of slim pickins. Off the top of our heads we can name a few decent outposts besides the above Tastes: Alterra Coffee has multiple kiosks in Milwaukee General Mitchell International Airport, while SFO boasts an Equator Coffee, Iceland's Keflavik has a Kaffitar or two, and I hear the cafe in Seoul is just the bee's knees.

But what of those long, sad journeys midair with nothing to tide you over but the wafting aroma of stale, batch-brew down the aisles towards you? Having long since been forced to pour out your thermos before the TSA checkpoint, most fliers are now stranded in the skies with little choice of quality caffeination. Is there hope?

Unfortunately, not much: the most boutique-esque airlines still don't cough up much in the way of boutiquery. Virgin America, endearing themselves to San Francisco, are pouring Philz. Delta dishes Seattle's Best alongside their inflight dirty martinis, JetBlue serves the democratically selected Dunkin' Donuts, and even Canada's service-plus mini-airline Porter Air does no finer than Starbucks.

The problem, unfortunately, may just be one of scale and quality: to service a coffee contract to an entire airline, and provide the coffee in a format they can easily brew at jostling altitude, is never going to be easy or practical for seasonal micro-lots, for instance. (Remember, these guys only just caught on to fancy soap.) Some die-hards bring and brew their own coffee inflight (2009 Norwegian Barista Team, I'm looking at you!) while others make do with airborne swill, or wait in hopes that they're flying into one of the rare airports with something decent on the other end.

While airline services always fluctuate with the economy, the new wave of tiny bourgeois quality touches that carriers employ to give themselves any tiny competitive edge seems ready for more airlines to attempt quality coffee. Even pre-ground, "frac-pack" coffee of high quality will beat out the stale aroma of food service grade brew any day now. Of course, at the end of the day, there is also an issue of philosophy. First we'd have to convince the airlines—like so many that have gone before them—that coffee needn't be just a cheap commodity that people expect to get for nothing. (Warning: this concept may cause air rage.)

What airport cafes have saved you while on the go? Share your tips for the weary travelers among us!

About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop later this year.

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