Airport lounges are usually a haven for frequent flyers, but in recent times they’ve become a coronavirus concern for health authorities alongside similar venues like bars, cafes, and dine-in restaurants.
As those businesses gradually reopen, so too will airport lounges – but, at least in the early days, not quite as travellers knew them before.
Here are five things you can expect to see when those frosted glass doors once again slide open.
1. Not every lounge will re-open at the same time
At airports where airlines have several lounges for different grades of travellers, not all of those lounges will simultaneously fling open their doors.
A good example are Australia's mainland capital cities, where each airport has both a Qantas Club and a Qantas Business lounge, along with a Chairman's Lounge for the invitation-only set.
When Qantas first announced its nation-wide lounge closures in late March, the Chairman's Lounges and Qantas Club lounges were to be shuttered while the Qantas Business lounges became the default destination for all lounge-eligible passengers.
The rebound is likely to follow suit: Executive Traveller understands that Qantas expects its domestic lounge openings to be staggered and depend on the volume of travellers.
2. Social distancing and capacity caps
In common with any other venue where people gather, airport lounges will have to observe social distancing and avoid passengers clustering too close together.
How airlines and lounge operators implement this remains to be seen: one example is Zurich's Aspire Lounge, which now has a rule of two people per table with all tables spaced at least two metres apart.
A Qantas spokesman tells Executive Traveller that furniture in the lounges will be moved around, along with "other temporary changes to facilitate physical distancing."
However, this will also mean a reduction in actual lounge capacity and the need to place limits on the number of passengers allowed into a lounge – which could see some lounges declared 'full' even with relatively low numbers, and usually lounge-worthy passengers turned away.
Air New Zealand, which reopens a dozen of its domestic lounges this week as national travel restrictions ease, says there will "be a maximum of 100 people able to be in any lounge which would normally cater for more than that."
This could also see independent lounges prioritise the guests they’re contracted to serve, such as those sent by airlines, while limiting access to other travellers such as casual visitors and members of third-party lounge programs like Priority Pass.
3. No more self-serve buffets
Pressing the pancake button at breakfast time, using tongs to fetch food from the servery, touching the handle on the sandwich toaster or pouring yourself a glass of wine from a communal bottle: those are four things you won’t be able to do as airport lounges slowly swing open their doors.
In fact, self-serve buffets will be but a memory for some time.
“In line with government regulations, our self-service buffet won’t be available," says Nikki Goodman, Air New Zealand's General Manager, Customer Experience. "Instead, customers will be required to be seated once they enter the lounge and there’ll be table service with packaged snacks on offer, as well as beverages."
“We know those travelling will be looking forward to once again being able to order a flat white before they fly and in lounges with a barista, customers will be given the choice of ordering through the Air New Zealand app, or through their server.”
Earlier this year, Cathay Pacific adjusted the food and beverage service in its remaining lounges to remove all buffet dining, relying instead on its popular Noodle Bar in business class lounges – where staff prepare and serve individual dishes to order – and the dining room in its Wing First Class Lounge, which is similarly a la carte.
More locally, prior to the current close-down, Virgin Australia moved to a ‘no touch’ dining set-up across its Australian domestic lounges.
Rather than helping themselves, guests seeking hot food would ask a staff member manning the counter to serve them their choice, which avoided passengers handling any shared utensils.
Qantas says its lounges will also contain "adjustments to food and drink service" and is currently working thought exactly how that takes shape.
4. Boxed meals and packaged snacks
Lounges that aim to further minimise contact between passengers and staff will move to boxed meals and packaged snacks, which can be prepared in the kitchen and made ready for travellers to quickly take away without lingering.
Expect items such as boxed sandwiches, wraps, chips and the like, as well as nibbles in cling-wrapped bowls.
That's an approach Virgin Australia took in its domestic lounges before the recent shutdown, which again avoided passengers having to touch communal tongs or scoops.
5. Reading material goes digital
As lounges look to remove items that multiple travellers touch and reuse, communal newspapers and magazines will also disappear for the time being.
It’s a move that reflects what’s already happening on board, where airlines aren’t stocking seatback pockets with the typical inflight mag. Qantas, for example, now emails Frequent Flyers with an invitation to download an electronic copy of what would otherwise be the print magazine.
Where magazine editions have already been physically printed, some high-tiered frequent flyers have reported receiving their own personal copy by mail, even if they’re not currently travelling.
But as flying resumes and lounges reopen, expect digital magazines and newspapers to be the way forward.
Apps such as PressReader allow users to download offline copies of their favourite titles to enjoy at any time – whether that’s before, during or even long after their flight – and some airlines provide free PressReader downloads when connected to their lounge hotspots.
Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are among the increasing number of airlines that allow lounge lizards to stock up on digital reading material, which some may prefer to traditional print newspapers and magazines: not only because they’re not touched by multiple readers, but because the content can be enjoyed even after leaving the lounge.
Additional reporting by David Flynn