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The golden age of airport lounges is over

Pictured left: a restaurant lounge in the 1960s in Fornebu International Airport, Oslo; right: a sad sandwich in the club lounge at Seville airport
Airport lounge standards are deteriorating, says Marshall. Pictured left: a restaurant lounge in the 1960s in Fornebu International Airport, Oslo; right: a sad sandwich in the club lounge at Seville airport - Alamy Stock Photo

Two boiled potatoes and a cocktail the colour of a Slush Puppy almost landed me in a West African jail. Admittedly, theft wasn’t on my mind when I’d huddled into a corner with the meagre pickings on offer at the (only) lounge in Gabon’s Léon-Mba International Airport in Libreville. Two lonely bottles of spirits behind the dusty bar weren’t even worth the extra weight in my luggage.

But a misunderstanding about payment for lounge access led to an angry receptionist chasing me through the terminal screaming, “J’appelle la police.” All that stress and embarrassment for a bite of a par-cooked spud.

According to a new report by Which?, airport lounges are failing to deliver
According to a new report by Which?, airport lounges are failing to deliver. Pictured: The Aspire lounge at Zurich Kloten airport - Alamy Stock Phot

It wasn’t the first time I’d run into problems with airport lounges. It won’t be the last.

According to a new report published by Which? many airport lounges fail to deliver on expectations. Of 20 British lounges secretly surveyed, none achieved higher than three stars out of five. In fact, the majority scored much lower, suggesting travellers would be better off spending their cash on other food outlets.

When the first airport lounge opened in New York’s LaGuardia airport in 1939, it was an invite-only affair; an exclusive area for wealthy high-flyers to relax before flights. Similar spaces followed.

The Admiral Club at New York's La Guardia airport
The Admiral Club at New York's La Guardia airport - American Airlines
Admirals Club LGA lounge
The lounge at La Guardia was invite-only - American Airlines

It wasn’t only airlines who saw the potential for providing valued customers with a sought-after sanctuary. Soon, companies realised there was a market for charging people to access lounges where free food, drink and later Wi-Fi were guaranteed.

For years, I considered lounge access a treat, a way to start a holiday in style or ease the stress of travelling for work. I’ve probably passed through over 200 airports this year, ranging from the sprawl of Charles de Gaulle to the tin hut set-up of Bissau. I typically fly economy class, making paid-for lounge access the only option for finding a decent place to sit and file stories between flights.

Too often, however, I’ve been disappointed with the quality of what’s on offer. In Zimbabwe’s Harare airport, a wasteland of shabby stalls selling bread rolls as hard as boulders and poorly carved wooden giraffes, signs for a lounge were like a gateway to heaven. But somehow, I must have got stuck in a purgatory along the way.

The only food available at the Dzimbahwe Executive Lounge was bowls of crisps sealed with clingfilm and a few soggy white bread sandwiches. The Wi-Fi was impossible to connect and cheap PVC sofas were stacked so closely together, they could have gone up in smoke had someone dropped a match.

Worst of all was the cost. I’d used one of my 10 entries on a Premium Pass (annual membership £229) but had been charged £30 to bring a friend. I could have purchased quite a few stale bread rolls with the same £60 amount.

Below par: The Plaza Premium Lounge at Heathrow's Terminal 4
Below par: The Plaza Premium Lounge at Heathrow's Terminal 4 - mattweibo/Flickr

It’s not just airports in developing countries that have below-par lounges. At London Gatwick, the Plaza Premium is a pleasant enough space when there are no other flights departing. But during busy periods, I’ve had to squeeze next to strangers and if I’m honest, I could have found better breakfast options at Greggs. The branch at Heathrow’s T4 isn’t much better.

Which? reached a similar conclusion in their report. Since the pandemic, corners have been seriously cut. No1 Lounges no longer offer al la carte menus and spa facilities are a thing of the past. But the worst offender according to their reviewers was Southend’s SKYLIFE lounge, nothing more than a roped-off area in a drab bar.

Aspire Lounges are 40 per cent more expensive on average compared to 2020
Rising costs: Aspire Lounges are 40 per cent more expensive on average compared to 2020 - Alamy Stock Photo

Where services are poorer, prices are higher. Which? say the Aspire Lounges they reviewed are 40 per cent more expensive on average compared to 2020 – with costs ranging from £21–£35. London prices are even worse. A five-hour stay at Heathrow’s Plaza Premiums can cost around £245 for a family of four. You’d need to eat a lot of food to make that worthwhile and trust me, in most cases you won’t be going back for seconds.

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd.'s first-class lounge The Pier at Hong Kong International Airport
A favourite: Cathay Pacific's first-class lounge The Pier at Hong Kong International Airport - Bloomberg

My best lounge experiences over the last 12 months have been in spaces operated by airlines: the Qantas lounge at T4, Virgin’s Clubhouse, and Cathay Pacific’s various options in Hong Kong. Given I rarely fly business, I’ve relied on my BA Executive Club silver card for Oneworld lounge access – although there’s a chance, I may not accrue enough air miles to keep that going.

Failing that, I’m going to invest in a portable stool, get my own dongle and bring a packed lunch. Hardly glamorous, but sadly neither are airport lounges these days.

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