Why Are Airport Lounges So Crowded?

Passengers look for a way to escape the chaos of the airport. And more passengers who are traveling have access to lounges than ever. The nicer the lounge, the longer passengers stay there. They make an effort to visit, and they take advantage of the food and the libations.

Even when lounges do their best to limit access, to reduce crowding, that just attracts the passengers who had been staying away because the lounges were so crowded.

Look at the line for the Delta lounge at JFK!! This is actually worse than it was during the summer! pic.twitter.com/SI9NJAN0rt

— Clint Henderson (@ClintPHenderson) September 16, 2022

This was true to some extend before the pandemic. Centurion lounges were packed, and it’s been nearly six years since they began trying to do something about it. But the situation has gotten so much worse, and is no longer limited to Centurion lounges (and to Delta’s New York JFK terminal 4 lounge). Why?

Air Canada Senior Vice President Mark Nasr says travel behaviors have changed, and that the driver is premium leisure and work flexibility.

According to Nasr, it’s a new type of travel behavior, NOT premium credit cards, that are the main cause of airport lounge overcrowding.

He says this is happening industry wide.

— Chris Dong (@thechrisflyer) October 29, 2022

Nasr isn’t wrong, for sure, but I don’t think that’s the whole picture either. Lounges are crowded but not every airline’s lounges are equally crowded.

  • Delta has a unique premium card access challenge issue because it isn’t only their own premium cobrand that is an issue, everyone with an Amex Platinum or Centurion card traveling on Delta has access.

  • People spend more time in lounges when flights delay and cancel. That’s been a major issue for Air Canada but more of one than in past for Delta, too.

  • Status gets you lounge access at Air Canada (and at least on international itineraries with many other airlines) and airlines have been extending everyone’s status for a few years (people who earned it in 2019 generally still have it), plus making status easier to earn overall at several airlines (Air Canada via credit card and non-flight activity, American by credit card spend alone, Delta now counts miles from award travel).

  • The fact that people with lounge access spend more time in lounges precisely does mean that too many people have access relative to capacity. Indeed, Nasr recognizes this – they’re taking away Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge access from Aeroplan 35K elites next year.

It’s Worth Spending 90% Longer In The Air Canada Signature Suite

Premium credit cards have proliferated significantly in the U.S. since 2016. More people buying lounge access in more ways means more people with access. And in general clubs are better, more attractive places to spend time than they used to be. American Express put pressure on airlines to up their game. Capital One entered the space and now Chase is too. But the expansion of lounge options hasn’t kept up with passengers having access, or (as Nasr observes) spending more time in those lounges.

Air Canada has felt the issue of more time in lounges especially, and not just because they’re seeing more premium leisure passengers. Canadian airports have been a disaster, so passengers show up early in case security is a mess, and wind up spending more time airside as a result. Then Air Canada’s flights delay and cancel, stacking up passengers in the lounge. These issues will work themselves out, but lounges will remain crowded for awhile. And matters aren’t helped at American Express’ Escape partner lounges when those lounges sell discounted access on Groupon.

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