The rise of ‘business class-only’ airport lounges

It takes more than just frequent flyer status to enjoy these upmarket lounges with restaurants, bars and sleeping rooms.

By David Flynn, October 17 2022
The rise of ‘business class-only’ airport lounges

Although many airlines reward high-tier frequent flyers with access to business class lounges, there’s a steady increase in the number of lounges being declared as true business class-only spaces where it’s your ticket up front, not your shiny loyalty card, that gets you through the doors.

In many ways, this represents a return to How Things Used To Be.

Long before airline loyalty programs became increasingly important and profitable businesses in their own right, lounges were a crucial part of the business class experience: exclusive pre-flight havens for the important and well-heeled.

Over time, that elite access was extended – or some might say, watered down – to include the higher levels of an airline’s frequent flyers and those of alliance partners.

Now the pendulum is swinging back, as the ranks and expectations of frequent flyers swell, to create new lounges strictly reserved for business class passengers.

United Airlines' Polaris lounges are a business class-only affair.
United Airlines' Polaris lounges are a business class-only affair.

In their own way, these upmarket lounges reflect a contemporary take on the original lounge formula: à la carte dining, well-stocked bars with and free-flowing Champagne, nap rooms, high-grade design and furnishings plus an overall ‘refined’ ambience all aim to bring extra shine to the modern business class travel experience.

Delta Air Lines is the latest member of the business class-only lounge brigade.

As first revealed by Executive Traveller earlier this month, the new wave of Delta One Clubs set to open from 2023 will be only for travellers booked into the airline’s Delta One business class (along with business and first class flyers of other SkyTeam airlines departing from the same terminal).

“These lounges will not admit top-tier frequent flyers (eg Medallion Diamond) who are in Delta Premium Select and/or Main Cabin),” a spokesperson for Delta Air Lines confirmed to Executive Traveller. 

Delta’s decision matches the approach of rival United Airlines, which operates a network of Polaris lounges dedicated to passengers in its own Polaris business class cabins (and business and first class flyers on Star Alliance, given United’s membership of that group).

All United Airlines Polaris lounges include a tender bar with premium wines and cocktail at the ready.
All United Airlines Polaris lounges include a tender bar with premium wines and cocktail at the ready.

Since the first Polaris lounge opened at United’s Chicago home in December 2016, similarly-upscale Polaris facilities have sprouted at Los Angeles, San Francisco, Newark, Houston and Washington DC.

Sleeping nooks and nap rooms are now part of many business class-only airport lounges.
Sleeping nooks and nap rooms are now part of many business class-only airport lounges.

Fancy bars, dining rooms, private workstations, nap rooms and well-appointed shower suites all set the stage for the actual Polaris flight, which has become United’s most premium experience since the airline scrapped first class.

In its Signature Suite lounges at Toronto and Vancouver, Star Alliance sibling Air Canada takes the ‘restricted access’ concept a step further: in most cases, even a business class ticket booked using frequent flyers points isn’t enough.

The dining room of Air Canada's Signature Suite Toronto lounge.
The dining room of Air Canada's Signature Suite Toronto lounge.

“Only Aeroplan flight rewards booked as a Business Class Flexible Reward or a First Class Flexible Reward… are eligible for access,” Air Canada calls out, with “Business Class Lowest Reward or a First Class Lowest Reward” excluded from the Signature Suite, along with all “Business Class flight rewards booked and ticketed by partner airlines.”

Likewise, premium economy or economy passengers who snared a points upgrade to business class with points will be turned away at the door.

At Singapore Airlines home in Changi Terminal 3, the SilverKris Business lounge is another declared business class-only zone, with the exception of the airline’s PPS Club members (who can earn that rarefied status only on business or first class travel with Singapore Airlines).

Singapore Airlines' flagship business class lounge at Changi Airport T3.
Singapore Airlines' flagship business class lounge at Changi Airport T3.

Reopened in May 2022 after a multi-million dollar makeover, the spacious SilverKris Business lounge foregoes à la carte dining in favour of an extensive buffet spread, although the bar and nap rooms are standouts.

However, outside of Changi, all other SilverKris Business lounges welcome Gold-tier KrisFlyer members and Star Alliance Gold elites.

Qatar Airways has long maintained a business class-only policy for its sprawling Al Mourjan Business Lounge at Doha: a policy which often catches out the frequent flyers of other Oneworld airlines, who are used to business lounge access even on mid-tier Sapphire status (such as Qantas and Cathay Pacific Gold, and British Airways Silver).

Qatar Airways' Al Mourn business class lounge at Doha.
Qatar Airways' Al Mourn business class lounge at Doha.

Lounge access isn’t even included on Qatar’s unbundled Business Lite fares, although it can be purchased for around US$100: an option available to any traveller on a Qatar Airways flight.

For a long layover it’s arguably worth it when you consider the Al Mourjan Business Lounge – which at over 10,000 square metres across two levels is about the size of 10 Olympic swimming pools – has not one but two ‘restaurants’, family rooms, quiet rooms for napping and a relaxing ‘garden resort’ area.

Qatar Airways Premium Lounges don't admit frequent flyers unless they pay for lounge access.
Qatar Airways Premium Lounges don't admit frequent flyers unless they pay for lounge access.

The same exclusive rules apply at all Qatar Airways Premium lounges outside of Doha, such as London, Paris, Singapore and Bangkok.

These well-appointed ‘boutique’ lounges admit only business class or first class flyers on Qatar Airways or partners such as Oneworld, with frequent flyers sent to another partner lounge in the terminal.

Selected American Airlines Flagship Lounges include a Flagship Dining room.
Selected American Airlines Flagship Lounges include a Flagship Dining room.

One twist to the business class-only formula is the exclusive dining room in selected American Airlines Flagship Lounges. While the Flagship Lounges are open to most frequent flyers along with business class and first class passengers, only the later can visit the Flagship Dining room with its premium meals and drinks, including a cocktail menu.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 Jan 2018

Total posts 35

A bit conflicted with business-and-above-only lounges. Yes, it may have fewer people and more 'exclusive' but I always wonder if the Math makes sense. Would love to hear thoughts from experts in thsi area.

But anyway, I find that in the long run, as fewer businesses (and even certain government agencies) spend money on business class fares, would airlines have enough revenue to cover the cost of running such lounges. (On top of my head, the rental cost for the space must have been prohibitive as it is, not to mention kitchen cost for a la carte dining and what not). There must have been good reasons why, many decades ago, airlines gradually opening up access to frequent flyers, and moving away from the original model of 'business class only' access.

Also, I would say such a model would discourage loyalty of customers to any particular airlines. If one always flies business class, then there is less incentive to be loyal to any particular airline, for you are likely to get good flying experience anyway (except from those first-world problems and complaints **rolling my eyes**).

Anyway, I could be way off and wrong about this, but I am always interested in airlines cost structure in general. Any wise men out there to give some insights?

QF

11 Jul 2014

Total posts 870

These lounges don't make sense to me, just because you are flying business doesn't mean a lot at all when it comes to the standard of dress code and also etiquette for entry into the lounges. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

08 Jul 2017

Total posts 26

Who cares about dress code? I’d rather not see a tracksuit or bikini tops but apart from that you pay a ticket who cares. 

25 Feb 2022

Total posts 9

About time that the lounges are taken back and provide the service and standard they use to. The increase of passengers using such lounges became critical to the point where even the great airline brands were missing the target.  Set up another lounge or service for frequent flyers and loyalty programs, however those paying up to five-fold for Business and more, should not have the level dropped because of the uncontrollable number of passengers evading a lounge.

Qf

26 Apr 2015

Total posts 20

Sounds good to me - I thoroughly enjoyed both the Business lounge in Doha and the TPG in Singapore.  Speaking as someone who has paid for either business or First since 1989, I have seen the lounges (particularly Qantas ones), lose quality and service over the years.  The International business in Sydney is a joke and Qantas  First over the years has become a zoo.   

I haven’t flown since 2019 (thanks Covid), but had decided to move to SQ  and Qatar based on superior product plus better lounges. 

 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Jan 2019

Total posts 2

Will they be opening exclusive lounges for high-tier frequent flyers? Does this make financial sense?

If all airlines eventually follow this model, what lounges will be available for loyal frequent flyers? How will they continue to attract loyalty given that lounge access is one of the main benefits of having a high status?

Some airlines already do have "exclusive lounges for high-tier frequent flyers", some of them are even better than the business class lounge. Finnair does this at Helsinki with the Platinum Lounge, and BA's LHR T5 First lounge is really a 'Platinum' lounge because actual first class flyers go to The Concorde Room.

"If all airlines eventually follow this model, what lounges will be available for loyal frequent flyers? How will they continue to attract loyalty given that lounge access is one of the main benefits of having a high status?" There will always be lounges for frequent flyers, and they will generally be okay, and in some cases pretty good, but I don't have a problem with airlines making their business class lounge more exclusive and offering something a cut above the lounges for frequent flyers who are in economy. You have to understand that from a revenue perspective the money's in business and first class.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Jan 2019

Total posts 2

That's all well and good, I don't have any issues with business lounges being more exclusive. But I'm still wondering if it makes financial sense, having a separate lounge for each class of travelers. We currently have "first" and "business" lounges. Now we're going to have frequent flyer lounges running in parallel. Should platinum frequent flyers have their own exclusive lounge, separate to those with a lower status? They do fly a lot more after all. Should we also have a gold status lounge separate to a silver status? Where does it end?

Separate exclusive lounges will certainly improve the experience, but I suspect it will be the passengers who will pay for it through increased airfares.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 Mar 2013

Total posts 178

A good article that's giving us a spirited discussion. I think we all feel the significant downgrading in Qantas Lounges over the last 10-15yrs. Alas.

29 Jan 2012

Total posts 150

Totally support the change. 

As an example, when you look at Sydney's F Class lounge being accessed by Jetstar passengers via their Platinum status when flying on deeply discount economy airfares, makes the system slightly farcical. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

08 Jul 2017

Total posts 26

Seems like a fair way of looking after those who’ve actually stumped up for a premium fare, if the offerings in those lounges is more costly. The QF lounges in Melbourne get worse with each change. Don’t start me wrong on the QF international business lounge … a lounge is a bonus with a flight. We all pay for it in our airfares. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

26 Jun 2012

Total posts 60

There is a reason I throw money at Business and First; I'm absolutely antisocial once my travel hat is on. In any other situation I'd be happy to sit next to you in the pub or at a restaurant but once I'm at the airport I want private space. Limiting access could be a good thing. 


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