Photography by Gunner Hughes
There’s probably no inappropriate time to drink at an airport bar (unless maybe you are the pilot). The bartender is almost always busy. The bars are full day and night, with new sets of customers coming and going as the gate tickers flip and tick. People stay for a drink or sometimes two to kill the time, usually not more, unless something goes wrong—mechanical delays, canceled flights, weather, booking errors—and there’s more time to kill. Sometimes a lot more.
We took off to cover five of the busiest airports in the US—JFK, Atlanta, O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth and LAX, with a layover in Charlotte (which cracks the top 10)—over the course of 36 hours. At each of them, we talked with busy bartenders who were kind enough to slow down a moment and entertain our questions.
One thing we wondered was, why when you order a drink at an airport bar are you nearly always asked…
Want to make that a double?
What drives drinkers in airport bars to doubles? Is it the general stress of travel, the joy and abandon of being on a trip, being in a hurry to make a flight and wanting to be efficient, the terror induced by those safety videos? Whatever it is, the tradition goes back further than nearly every bartender we spoke to could remember, and some of them have been at it for more than 40 years.
*Annual passenger volume per Airports Council International (ACI).
DATE: TUESDAY | TIME: 10:00 | TERMINAL: 8 | BAR: SOHO BISTRO | YEARS TENDING BAR: 13 YEARS
What drink do people order the most? We sell the most draft beers. The Goose Island IPA and the Brooklyn Lager are the most popular.
Why does every airport bartender ask if you want to make that a double? It’s a good deal. If you order a single and then you get a second shot to make it a double, the second shot is only five bucks.
What’s the least amount of time you’ve ever seen someone spend at the bar? Less than two or three minutes. Sometimes the flight is boarding when they order, and they drink it and then they bail out.
What’s been your best day working here? Every day is a good day.
DATE: TUESDAY | TIME: 10:45 | TERMINAL: 8 | BAR: BOBBY VANS | YEARS TENDING BAR: 12 YEARS
What’s the most common drink order? Martinis. Since we’re a steakhouse.
Most popular beer? Stella.
Do you know where the tradition of asking if someone wants to make that a double comes from? [Manager interjects] We don’t push it here. A lot of folks don’t realize that you’re getting charged twice, by the way. I think what happens possibly with places doing that is to up the checks quite a bit. [Oscar returns from taking an order down the bar.]
Oscar, what was your most memorable day? It’s a new experience every day. We get celebrities sometimes. But you know what happened once? We had the blizzard, like really, really bad. Probably like seven years ago. I spent 48 hours at the airport, 48… 50-something hours. You couldn’t go anywhere. I was in Terminal 4. It looked like a war zone. There were people lying on the floor left and right. It was just crazy. Two days straight. We closed the restaurant for just two hours, from like 2 to 4 a.m. to restock—barely closed for two hours—and then, you know, you just keep on working. We got people waiting in line. It was nonstop.
DATE: TUESDAY | TIME: 14:24 | CONCOURSE: C | BAR: STOCK CAR CAFE | YEARS TENDING BAR: 32 YEARS
So, you’ve been here for 32 years. You’re in the lead, by the way. In all your years here have all the bartenders always asked, “Do you want to make that a double?” It’s always been like that. The one time we don’t ask them, somebody
will have something to say about it. They’ll complain. “Why did you automatically give me a double, when I wanted a single?” So we have to ask that. Same with the beers—a 14 compared to a 20 ounce. The one time we give them the 20 ounce, they don’t want to pay the price for it. So here, somebody would have to downsize.
Most popular drink? Bloody mary. Hands down.
Of all the people that come through here every day, any customers stand out as especially memorable? Well, we get our regulars who come through the airport a lot. Gosh. There was the guy who tipped me $400, he said, “for doing your job and being attentive.” It wasn’t even too busy that night. He came in and got a $10-beer and left a $400 tip on the bar. I got a lot of them though. Gosh… [While she’s thinking, her co-worker who has been listening in interjects and reminds her about the customer who jumped over the bar.] Oh, yeah. He was pretty much out of it. And he thought his bags were back here. When his flight was called, he jumped over the bar. They weren’t. There was another guy who took off all his clothes. [They both laugh.]
DATE: TUESDAY | TIME: 17:27 | CONCOURSE: T | BAR: ATLANTA STILLHOUSE | YEARS TENDING BAR: SINCE ’99
What’ve you noticed is the most frequently ordered drink over those years? Anything with vodka. Or wine. But the most popular drink at this spot? Basically what you all are drinking. We have a Kentucky Mule with bourbon—we’re a bourbon-based bar.
Why do they almost always ask if you want to make that a double at airport bars? Since I’ve been here, they always have some kind of special, whether that’s a double special, or what we normally do, a beer-shot special. That’s your main airport special. But every airport I’ve gone to, it’s basically the same thing.
Have you bartended outside the airport? Yes, I have. But here’s the best. Good time. You meet interesting people. I get people who talk to me and stuff, and I talk back to the people. Just try to give people good advice on stuff that’s going on in their life. Or somebody comes in drowning their sorrows sometimes. But overall, I love it. You do meet a lot of interesting people.
Any stand out? Oh, yes. When I was over at my other spot at Heineken here in the airport where I worked before this bar, I had a guy come in and he did shots in his eye. I never seen nothing like it before. He’s from another country, and he said this is what they do over there. I can’t tell you which one—that was years back. He had a shot of tequila, took the salt, poured it in his eye, squeezed the lime in his eye, and then he took the tequila and turned it up in his eye. We couldn’t believe it. I wish I could have recorded that—this was before Facebook or whatever—because that would have went viral. Once people started seeing him doing it, they would buy him another shot. It’s unbelievable when I tell people that. Yes, I witnessed a guy take a tequila shot into the eye. The salt, the lime and the liquor. I never ever, ever, ever thought I’d see that. And I’ll probably never see it again.
DATE: TUESDAY | TIME: 23:37 | TERMINAL: 3 | BAR: TORTAS FRONTERA BY RICK BAYLESS | YEARS TENDING BAR: 42 YEARS
What drink do people order the most often? I don’t want to be cynical, but this bar, it looks like a Mexican place, so they order margaritas. But I would say the most popular drink at the airport is gin and tonic. And then bloody mary and a screwdriver. I always say Budweiser is the most popular beer.
Not Goose Island in Chicago? It used to be. Many, many years ago. About 15… 20 years ago.
Do you know how it got started that every airport bartender asks if you want to make it a double? Here it is prohibited. At O’Hare, we don’t do happy hour, we don’t do double. They say to control behavior.
What’s been your most memorable night at the airport in those 42 years? I could write a book about it. One time, many years ago, it was raining so much. I come in at 8 in the morning. I work more than 20 hours. People cannot get in or out or anything. People were stuck. That was like 25 years ago. No cars could get here. People had to walk miles to get out. We had to sleep in the airport.
DATE: WEDNESDAY | TIME: 12:25 | TERMINAL: 3 | BAR: CHICAGO CUBS BAR & GRILL | YEARS TENDING BAR: 8 YEARS
How long have you lived in Chicago? Almost 10 years. I moved here from Bulgaria.
What have you noticed is the most popular drink? Bloody mary. Mostly I work morning shifts.
Do you know where the tradition of airport bars offering doubles comes from? Actually the original drink here was double. And then a year ago we have a single option. Before it was mandatory to order a double.
What’s your favorite drink to make? To make? Island punch. Mostly, I like to drink island punch, to be honest. It’s very tropical. It’s Captain with a strawberry puree, orange juice and pineapple.
What’s been your most memorable shift? The World Series [in 2016]. It was very interesting. Everybody was very excited. There actually were a lot of enemies. People from other teams. Actually they were, like, hating. But it was a very interesting day. You see how passionate the people are.
DATE: WEDNESDAY | TIME: 19:15 | TERMINAL: D | BAR: BREWED | YEARS TENDING BAR: 13.5 YEARS
You’ve been here a while. It’s a good gig? Oh, yeah. It’s guaranteed traffic.
What’s the most popular drink you’ve seen people order at this airport in 13 and a half years? Draft beer and margaritas.
What’s the most popular beer here? [The bar has all Texas beers on draft] I’d say Shiner Bock.
Do you have any idea where the tradition of asking if people want a double started? Higher tabs, probably. Because that’s our income. Higher the tab, the better the tip. I know a lot of people who don’t ask, who I’ve worked with. And I’m like, “Why not?” All they have to do is say no. It’s just become a habit for me, because, a lot of people that travel, it’s either yes or no. Some places I’ve worked its double the price. Here it’s only $5.50 more. I heard Atlanta—y’all been to Atalanta yet? It’s the busiest—do they ask about a double, too?
Sort of. I guess for me, I’ve been doing this almost 30 years—inside and outside the airport—it’s more about income. I just see dollar signs. I don’t see you. I see a dollar sign.
Any dollar signs stand out more than others? There was a guy who was super pissed off at American Airlines. And he re-booked with Southwest. He was buying everybody drinks at the bar and he must have tipped me over $300.
Is there a shift that stands out in your mind? 9/11 in 2009. It was super busy and we were all shocked. It was another bar I was working at upstairs from here. It was really good money-wise. I can’t remember what it was, if it was weather. But it was on September 11, 2009. It might have been one of those things where people, they were driven to drink because of what day it was. I remember there being flight delays and we were super packed.
DATE: WEDNESDAY | TIME: 23:41 | TERMINAL: 4 | BAR: COLE’S | YEARS TENDING BAR: 29 YEARS
How did you first start working at the airport? Honestly, I started for the Olympics in ‘84 and they needed a lot of help. I came from Mexico—Guadalajara—and I didn’t know any English. So I started cleaning tables and washing dishes.
In the time that you’ve been tending bar, almost 30 years, what do people order the most? Whiskey’s back now. And as far as the beers, a lot of people ask for the microbrews, IPAs and all that. IPA is the most popular, I believe.
How has that changed over the years? When I first started, I worked in the Theme Building restaurant—which is right in the middle of the airport in the spider type of building—so back then it was a lot of piña coladas, strawberry margaritas, a lot of blender drinks. After that it was tequila. Tequila came really strong, I would say in the mid-90s. And then it was all Heineken and Corona. And then about the 2000s it was all about martinis, like flavored martinis. All these kinds of crazy drinks. But I worked 12 years in Chili’s—I don’t know the years—but here right next door it was a Chili’s, it was there for 15 years and I worked there for 12. Of course, it was all kinds of margaritas. You know Chili’s.
Do you know why airport bars always ask you if you’d like a double? Our company started that. Early ‘90s somewhere. It was, “Would you like an extra shot for a dollar more?” And then like five, ten years later it was two dollars more. About ten years ago, it was still three dollars more. Now it’s six or seven dollars more.