I’m sorry, I just can’t. Malcolm Gladwell would call it the tipping point, but I’ll just call the current state of the airport lounge what it is – insanity. Mass transit masquerading as luxury.
What were once refined spaces and places for road warriors and those who pay for the best when they fly are now basically hospital waiting rooms at a push, with very slightly upgraded snacks and queues that rival a Taylor Swift merch booth just to get in.
And to be clear, unlike the hospital waiting room which usually has enough chairs upon entry, these spaces no longer do, so on behalf of the airline or credit card, please take your “free” snacks and bounce.
A time may be on the horizon where it actually makes sense to stop offering lounge access to some elite statuses and reimagining day of travel benefits that people can enjoy. There’s just not a lot of joy in lounges right now.
Valuable Airport Real Estate
Airport lounges are so crowded now that lines form to get in them. Some airlines even have two lanes to try to fast track more valuable customers.
Modest food offerings from the lounge are now often placed at the entry door as “grab n go” designed to turn people around when they do reach the door. Wait, what?
I’ve long said if everyone is “VIP”, no one is. That couldn’t be more true here.
This was always a problem for the flawed business model of pay as you go lounges, where the business goals run counter to the customer goals — aka the more heads through the door the better, versus the customer side of the more exclusivity and peace the better.
Now it’s hit breaking point with all lounges. The people having a coffee in the terminal did not have to wait in line to get there. They simply sat down and are even treated to tarmac or airplane views upon their seating.
Counter that with people who have paid more for their ticket, for their credit card, or have pledged allegiance to an airline, all waiting in line for the pleasure of entering a lounge space so crowded that there aren’t even seats. If there were, there wouldn’t be a f**king line.
This also makes me question the intelligence of everyone who willingly waits in said lines, because honestly, what do you expect to find at the end of the line? The reality is grim and the ways out of this mess are not short term.
I applaud the airlines and card issuers for their various efforts to upend the problem, but its bandaids for bullet wounds, or however that saying goes right now.
It sounds like a story from The Onion, but many airlines now have “grab and go” facilities designed to keep all who have access from actually coming in. Grab and go is a lovely concept when paired with a half empty space as the perfect accompaniment to lounge access for those hustling in transit, but not as a replacement for refinement and comfort.
My Historical Take On “The Problem”
There’s real business to be had from airport spaces. Lounges can be one of the better ones too. The problem is that airline bean counters don’t like how opaque the value and profit of running these spaces appeared on profit and loss sheets. The business case isn’t as simple as we sold X and got Y.
How do we know that paying all this money for wine, food and space is actually a good investment if everyone is getting in “for free” for being loyal? These people love a clean transactional trail and many facets of loyalty require a deeper dive than a single excel file. The justifications are 100% there, they just require more forensic accounting.
“So big time CFO Jimbo, that person using the lounge “for free” chooses to spend $2,000 a week with us, rather than with other airlines because we have this space and because it’s nice. If we start ramming it with people who just want to be that person giving us $2,000 a week that one time a year they fly, that $2,000 a week person might scram”.
Some airlines punch well above their boutique weight by offering amazing lounge and ground experiences. It’s hard to precisely measure how someone values that lounge experience in the P&L sheet, but it’s incredibly real.
Because everyone in corporate America likes ticking boxes and reporting up that they’re doing a job deserving of a salary and “maximizing” something for their boss, the notion of selling access to these spaces became too much to pass up for many airlines and credit card companies.
The 2008 global financial crisis was an additional catalyst as weakened airlines looked to pull money from thin air and absolutely managed to. At a cost, of course.
Credit card companies have always been eager to secure new and exciting perks for customers and that’s great! It created the perfect transaction. Airlines were happy to sell access and make money every time an eligible credit card customer swiped in and for the card companies it was an instant “no lift” way to offer more value.
The thing is, airport lounges historically have been small spaces for a select few — not spaces for everyone with plastic in their pocket.
Though no one will tell you outright, because so much money has been made, even those early airline and credit card partnerships somewhat went south quickly, with the guest expectation of premium credit card holders rarely being met by the dwindling airport lounge standards.
More people through the door was met with decreasing offerings to control costs of the access. Airlines were only happy to have these people pop in if they were profiting on the transaction — not if they drank them dry.
What were once a la carte “full meal” buffets became stale chips and dips, with some pretzels if you were lucky. What was once palatable $15-$20 wines became true super market bottom shelf which liquor that may well double as varnish for the spaces.
Cutting Out The Middle Men
So then credit card companies cut out the middlemen, the airlines, and opened their own spaces… only to create the same problem. You build it and they will come — and stay super long because they love getting value from their cards! Rightfully so, right?
When you sell airport happiness as a card perk, everyone wants that perk because everyone hates the airport. Plus, no one wants to feel like they’re losing on their big annual fee, which these days is increasingly… big. It might need to get bigger.
Airports are where airlines operate, sure, but the spaces are open for anyone to bid and contract on. It’s created a fever pitched competition to acquire spaces, and with such limited real estate, getting enough space to make the space worthwhile is truly difficult.
The Way Forward: Old Becomes New Again, New Becomes Better
There are ways to make every airport experience better and I genuinely believe many are happening. Paris Charles De Gaulle (CDG) is trialling putting truly local, unique and independent stores in place of chains like Starbucks to create an exciting environment for guests, which make people without lounge access really happy.
Generally, I’d say terminals are getting better. I often opt to pay $20 for a single nice glass of wine at a wine bar or steak house rather than waiting in line to have swill in a lounge. It’s often equally tranquil and there’s more selection.
Many airports are investing in food delivery within the terminal, with robots or people hustling to go fetch you something and bring it to your perfectly adequate seat in the terminal. With advancements like these, I don’t always bother with lounges.
If I so much as see a five person line, I immediately beeline my way towards an empty gate area where a flight has just departed and set up camp. If a lounge isn’t truly a haven, it does not have a place in my world. And havens in crowded places are valuable!
What Airlines Must Do: Hard Pill
Airlines and credit card companies need to stop trying to please everyone and start delivering on the marketing claims they make for the people who drive revenue and value for them.
If they get more exclusive with which credit cards gain access and which elite statuses are eligible for the richest airport perks, they can go back to driving value to their good old flying products.
Many airlines have, or are tinkering with “cabin only” lounges, where you can only enter if you’re actually flying in a premium cabin like business or first. There should be no exclusion as to using miles or paying cash for these experiences and offering these will allow precise control over passenger numbers.
You know how many seats you have in these cabins out of any market and that’s the number of people you’ll get.
A time will come when it might make serious sense to cut lounge access for lower their elite statuses and instead focus on just calling a spade a spade, and setting up a grab and go area, or enhanced terminal wifi proposition for people with low status. It might actually be a lot better than delivering sub-bar experiences.
There’s so much open ground to play with in an airport that isn’t a stuffy room. A passenger could really benefit from a credit to use at independent airport vendors, or lightning fast wifi they can bank on for free.
One thing is for sure, the present is not aspirational.
Bonus Content: Hierarchy Of Lounge Guest Hell
A funny truth about these airport lounges is that most of the people in them hold a grudge against each other, feeling others are unworthy.
Those who earn lounge access as a perk of “butt in seat” flying feel that their loyalty is certainly more valuable than anyone who spends a lot on a credit card annual fee.
Many paying the highest credit card annual fees don’t like mixing with middle manager road warriors, and last but not least, those who may fly infrequently but pay top dollar for the best experiences when they do are mad at both of the above for getting in for any way that isn’t cold hard cash on the specific transaction – aka flight.