Should Airline Lounges Fix Crowding By Keeping Out The Poors?

Live and Let’s Fly asks whether the ‘middle class ruined airport lounges’ and concludes that, in fact, credit card companies providing lounge access has ruined it. Neither is exactly correct.

The best lounges are exclusive, because they’re a respite from the terminal. There are plenty of exclusive lounges, from Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal to the Emirates A concourse first class lounge in Dubai – where an entire level of the terminal is set aside for first class (I’ve been the only passenger there for hours). When we talk about crowded lounges we’re talking generally about,

  • Airline membership lounges or business class lounges
  • Pay-in independent lounges, often accessible by credit card
  • Bank’s own lounges built for credit card customers

Crowding at each has slightly different reasons. Why are there too many passengers for the space?

  • Credit cards have provided a discounted way to buy access, a better deal for some customers than paying for a membership outright. That’s because it’s valuable to the bank and airline for the customer to take the credit card.

    Access to airline lounges via credit card isn’t the same at all airlines. Delta lounges offer their own premium co-brand cardmembers access, but also all Amex Platinum cardmembers too. So it matters most at Delta. American’s card from Citi has been cheapest, and offers access not just to the primary cardholder but also no annual fee additional cardmembers on an account too.

  • At the same time, bank lounges reduce overcrowding in airline lounges. That’s because there’s more lounges, and more space, to spread customers out over.

  • Priority Pass lounges seek crowding by taking Priority Pass revenue. The more crowded the lounge the more they make, since they earn a fixed fee per swipe. Credit cards pay for Priority Pass, but isn’t the lounge just as much to blame?

  • Airline lounge crowding is also an artifact of history, and in particular civil rights legislation. Airline clubs were “relatively exclusive until the mid-70’s” when government regulators insisted that airlines open their doors. In some sense, the democratization of lounges dates to 1974,

    [The Civil Aeronautics Board] decreed that the carriers had the choice of opening the clubs to all people, or of opening them to all passengers or all passengers traveling in a particular class, such as first class, or of opening them to members of a club, provided that anyone who requested membership in the club and paid the membership fee, if any, could join.

  • TSA is also to blame, causing people to spend more time at airports. Given the uncertainty of how long the screening process will take, people will come to the airport earlier, and find they have more time to kill. That makes clubs relatively more attractive, and also means club members spend more time in lounges.

  • The pandemic is to blame, changing the mix of business and leisure travel (there’s still far less managed corporate travel than pre-pandemic, and the consultant Monday – Thursday client site trips are down markedly). Leisure travelers spend more time in airports, frequent business travelers tend to cut it closer.

  • Airline consolidation is to blame, often leading to the closing of ‘duplicative’ lounges in airports. Take Washington National, where both American and US Airways used to operate clubs across from each other on the center concourse of the main terminal. The old US Airways Club was closed there. United and Continental both used to operate clubs there, now the old Continental club is used. And Delta and Northwest both used to have clubs. The old Northwest club was pre-security in the old (banjo) terminal and was closed.

It’s ultimately a complicated, multi-factor story that leads to lounge overcrowding, too many passengers chasing too little space. It’s been worse at Delta’s clubs, both because of Amex Platinum cardmembers and because they have a product people are willing to stand in line for, and because they do not yet have a separate business class lounge product to segregate those passengers like American and United do.

But it’s also been bad at American Express clubs, because the lounges set a new standard in the U.S. and people flocked to them. Five years ago I wrote that Amex lounges had gotten so crowded nobody goes there anymore.

I remember standing in a line 20 people deep for a cappuccino in Alitalia’s Botticelli lounge at Milan Malpensa airport 15 years ago. Credit cards weren’t the issue. It was filled with business class passengers and SkyTeam airline elites. And that lounge wasn’t so good it was drawing in passengers, either. In fact the shower drains were clogged and they frequently ran out of ‘shower kits’ (towels and disposable slippers to wade through the puddles in). Meanwhile I ate a lifetime’s worth of packaged Tillamook cheese in United Airlines Red Carpet Clubs 20 years ago, long before there was a credit card path to entry. The good old days of exclusive-feeling club lounges weren’t always so good, even for those who had access.

Ultimately the Live and Let’s Fly take that “we must lay the blame where the blame is due: on the credit card companies” is, I think, overly simplistic.

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