Far too cold. A rather insipid buffet. Nowhere near enough seats. If you’ve spent time in an airport lounge recently, you might have found the facilities somewhat lacking. This seems to be the case the world over, whether it’s Club Bauhinia at Hong Kong International or the Delta Sky Club at JFK.
Airport lounges were, once upon a time, the exclusive domain of the premium-class flier. Now there are many reasons why lesser mortals might have access. Credit cards like American Express’s Platinum Card offer it as a perk, regular fliers can buy annual passes, and even occasional travellers can often pay a one-off fee to secure a few hours of luxury before their departure.
The inevitable problem with this democratisation of airport lounges is that these once-serene spaces have become oversubscribed, undermining their very purpose. With the situation worsened by staffing issues, many are now turning away customers who arrive more than three hours before their scheduled departure, shrinking the window for relaxing pre-flight cocktails and canapes.
Covid-related factors have heightened the problem. On the one hand, airlines have sought to lure back cautious travellers by making access to their private lounges easier to obtain. For those still anxious about the virus, these less crowded spaces offer a modicum of reassurance. On the other hand, loyal customers whose frequent flier status was slated to expire during the pandemic have had their benefits extended, as two years of border restrictions meant they had been unable to make full use of them. So more people than ever are falling into airline’s VIP categories.
Then there’s the expansion of pay-as-you-go lounges. Aggregation websites like LoungeBuddy allow passengers to bypass the need for a credit card, airline membership or business-class ticket entirely. Users type in their departure airport and are presented with a list of potential lounges.
Sleep lounges and igloo pods
At Heathrow alone there are 45 options, including Terminal 2A’s Plaza Premium Lounge, where entry starts at £35 per person. This entitles you to food, alcohol, showers, Wi-Fi access – but reviews left on LoungeBuddy suggest that passengers have been refused entry to the lounge, despite paying for a pass, as it had reached its capacity.
For those taking a red-eye flight, options become even more creative. At Dubai International Airport, travellers can pay £23.50 for a two hour visit to the Sleep ‘n Fly Sleep Lounge, and slumber in ‘Igloo Pods’ (cubicles with a small bed).
For Gilbert Ott, a travel blogger at God Save The Points, the lack of quality control is exasperating. “These pay-as-you-go lounges are a fundamentally flawed business model. I think it’s insane,” he says.
Litany of cost-cutting measures
Ott is primarily concerned with the exhausting litany of cost-cutting measures. While the airline-operated spaces are focused on maintaining a sense of luxury for the frequent flier, the open-to-all lounges are, according to Gilbert, more concerned with the number of paying customers than quality: “What used to be à la carte became a buffet. Then the buffet went from properly cooked pasta to three-day-old baguettes and pre-packaged yoghurts. They’re not even trying to create a premium experience anymore.”
There are lounges that remain, on the whole, limited to premium ticket holders or top-tier airline members. Only a very small number of BA passengers have access to the Concorde Room found at Heathrow and JFK, for example. The dedicated dining room is only open to first-class fliers and the tiny number of people who hold a Concorde Room card (which is rumoured to require around 5,000 Tier Points each year).
The BA Galleries First Lounge is open to a slightly larger number of passengers; Club Lounges is the next rung down on the luxury ladder. Arrivals Lounges are open to all long-haul fliers touched down at Heathrow in business or first class, or those who are part of BA Executive Club Gold.
Winds of change
Gilbert is cautiously optimistic that lounges will, soon, return to normal. “By 2024, those membership extensions will start to lapse,” he says. The arrival of new lounges might also ease the burden: last year, Capital One launched its own spaces at three US locations, entering a territory normally dominated by its financial sparring partner American Express.
But for the hoi polloi who rely on pay-as-you-go lounges, overcrowding seems likely to linger. After all, £29.99 – the cost of entry to the Stansted Escape Lounge – seems a reasonable price to pay for a comfortable armchair and a decent meal. No wonder so many are tempted to cough up. Until demand falls, expect a scrum – and a shortage of seats.
3 of the best airport lounges across the globe
Gilbert Ott might feel affronted by the majority of airport lounges, but there are still some that get his vote:
Virgin Clubhouse, Heathrow
“Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow is one of the best business class lounges in the world. It has a mix of waiter service and a deli counter, plus there’s a very long cocktail bar. Most importantly, I’ve never struggled to find a seat there.”
Qantas First Lounge, Melbourne and Sydney
“For first class, you really can't beat Qantas in Melbourne and Sydney – they're extraordinary. Qantas has Neil Perry as their consultant chef, and their service is probably the nicest in the world.”
Emirates First Class Lounge, Dubai
“The Emirates First Class Lounge in Dubai must get an honourable mention, too. It takes up an entire floor of the terminal, which means you can board your plane directly from the lounge.”