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If everyone is VIP, no one is…

This week, Which?, a leading UK consumer publication, ranked the best and worst airport lounges in the country. The list, at the very least, is amusing. The story proceeded to get picked up in quite a few outlets and has people more curious than ever about upgrading their airport experience to the privacy of a lounge. There’s just one problem with that: if everyone is in the lounge, the terminal becomes the best spot.

In my opinion, an airport lounge is at its very best when…

  • It’s not too full. You want ample space to graze.
  • There’s quality beverages worth actually imbibing.
  • Food is of restaurant quality, even if it’s really simple.
  • Wifi is really fast and there are power ports everywhere.
  • There are adequate facilities to shower, change or freshen up.

Throughout the years, I’ve heard anecdotes of shy celebrities shunning airport lounges in favour of hiding in plain sight. There are plenty of bars and restaurants throughout the airport where you can feast on quality booze or food for under £50 per person, and for a celeb, no one is expecting them, unlike a lounge. It’s good cover.

That brings us to the fundamental problem of pay as you go airport lounges: money. Airlines open “invite only” lounges as a competitive business advantage for customers. Wether these lounges are full or empty really doesn’t matter. In fact, customers enjoy them more when they’re empty, so airlines keep access rules tight in hopes of creating that exclusivity. Basically, they need to be there no matter what, so having it full all the time isn’t necessary.

In “pay as you go” lounges, it’s the opposite. These lounges exist purely on the dime of ‘pay as you go’ travellers, and as a money making business, the more customers the better the business is. It’s in the lounge operators best interest to make sure it’s always rammed to the rafters. In my opinion, that absolutely ruins the entire point of an airport lounge. The cheaper the booze the more profit they make. The lower the cost of food, the more profit they make. Where’s the luxury in that?

If it’s champagne I’m after, I could spend £20 on a great glass in the airport and still come out £20 or better versus paying to enter an airport lounge and have a third rate glass of prosecco. If it’s great food, I could visit somewhere like Plane Food by Gordon Ramsay and have a really solid meal for far less than the sausage and bean buffet in the lounge. If it’s less crowded in the public restaurant, it’s yet another tick box in that column.

It’s fair to say that the allure of exclusivity is often more substantive than the actual offering inside. People will pay for things which in theory make them “more exclusive” than others, without actually contemplating the pros and cons. I’ve had amazing experiences in ‘pay as you go’ lounges around the world, but they’re never about the food or drinks. They’re about a space to unwind and relax.

If everyone can get in, there’s nothing special about it. If everyone is in, even more so. If it’s comfier chairs and perhaps faster wifi, the question is how much that’s worth to you. Simply put, this is a draw which has never made sense to me, and a business which never has either.

When a place thats selling the dream of exclusivity, peace, refinement and tranquility makes money by packing in people and finding the cheapest acceptable booze, it’s time to look elsewhere.

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