It began Monday, when Kylie Brakeman shared a list on X of how much the savory cereal snack costs at three different airports.
“Started doing science,” she wrote. “Feel free to report any data you have.”
She included a screenshot of prices she’d documented in her iPhone Notes app: $9.99 at LaGuardia, $5.99 at Indianapolis International, and $4.76 at Dallas Fort Worth International.
Brakeman travels a lot for work — not as a statistician or airport retail consultant, but an actor, TV writer and comedian. She says she was expecting some laughs and a “small but enthusiastic response” from the post, and instead got a deluge of responses. Her findings had struck a nerve.
“We have failed as a society” one person wrote in response to the $10 Chex Mix.
Strangers across the country replied with examples they’d seen in recent travels. Others added examples to a shared Google spreadsheet that Brakeman created after her Notes app was getting too cluttered. At Boston Logan International Airport, some reported the same 8.75-ounce Chex Mix bag costing $5.69. At either of Chicago’s airports, it’ll run you more than $12.
By comparison, the same bags of Chex Mix were priced at $4.19 at a CVS in downtown D.C. on Wednesday.
“It’s crazy to me,” Brakeman says. “It’s the same bag. It’s the same chips.”
It’s not the first time airports have come under fire for charging mindboggling prices for everyday items. In 2022, LaGuardia Airport (home of the $9.99 Chex Mix) went viral for charging as much as $27 for a single beer. The public outrage inspired the port authority overseeing New York City airports to tighten its consumer protections for food and drinks. (Last year, New York Times columnist David Brooks complained to social media about a $78 meal at Newark Liberty International Airport; most of that was his bar tab.)
Airport upcharges do not come as a surprise to Lawrence J. White, professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
“It’s just well understood there’s a captive audience and that’s what retailers are going to do,” he said.
Concessionaires can set their own prices but may be limited by governing forces, including local law.
According to Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) research, more than 80 percent of airports use a retail and concessions pricing methodology called “street pricing plus.” This allows vendors to adjust pricing to reflect the additional costs of operating within an airport environment, a spokesperson for the council said in an email. By ACI-NA’s findings, about two thirds of airports cap pricing at 10 percent higher than street pricing.
Under Los Angeles World Airports policy, vendors have been allowed to charge street pricing plus 18 percent since 2010. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, it’s street pricing plus 15, authorized by legislation in December 2021. Meanwhile, at Salt Lake City International businesses are obligated to stick to street pricing, a move inspired by Portland International Airport. At BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, it’s street pricing unless vendors want to match another local airport’s price for an item (up to street plus 10 percent).
Even within airports, prices may vary from store to store, as stores under the same chain (like Hudson News) may have different owners. That’s why you’ll see multiple Chex Mix entries for the same airport with different prices in Brakeman’s spreadsheet.
White said that’s about the same as you’d see in your community; the price of a bag of Chex Mix may vary from the convenience store by your office to the grocery store near your house. “It’s basically the retailers’ perspective on, ‘Oh the customers are willing to pay,’” he said.
But unlike your neighborhood grocery, which has to think about repeat customers and its local reputation, airports have less to lose from charging exorbitant prices.
“The people passing through the airport are not going to be there tomorrow or the day after,” White said. “And if they do come back a month later, they may have forgotten their vow never to buy the Chex Mix ever again.”
The ACI-NA spokesperson said it’s “important to understand that pricing strategies are highly localized” and that “[s]imply put, the cost of doing business in an airport environment is considerably higher than outside an airport, and consequently, prices for products and services at airports are higher than at shops outside the terminal,” the spokesperson said.
Restaurateur Rick Bayless, of Tortas Frontera by Rick Bayless — one of the most popular airport restaurant businesses in the country — says there are many factors that require vendors to charge more for the same product than they might in town. The main one is rent.
“You think, ‘downtown restaurants, the occupancy costs are high.’ They are, but nothing like what it is to be in the airport,” Bayless said.
His occupancy charges at Chicago O’Hare are set by two factors: first, how much the city leases the space for (American airports are usually owned by local, federal or city government), and second, “you have to pay the airlines that have gates around you because they bring in your customers.”
“And the busier the airport, obviously, the more expensive occupancy costs will be,” he said.
But in the case of Chex Mix, Bayless insisted that “somebody’s trying to gouge.”
The ACI-NA spokesperson said airports usually conduct pricing audits to ensure compliance. In the meantime, if you’re mad at the prices, White recommended bringing your own food.
“You can’t do that with liquids, but you’re not going to get any grief from TSA if you want to bring a bag of chips,” he said. “It goes through the X-ray machine just fine.”