With a growing network of airport lounges spanning 34 international destinations – along with seven lounges at its massive Dubai Airport hub – Emirates has been busy over the past 15 years in both adding new lounges to its line-up, and revamping or even replacing existing lounges when the time is right.
Executive Traveller recently sat down with Emirates’ Manager Product Development (Airport Services) Don Surendra in Dubai, to wind the clock back to when it all began and also take a look forward to the future of Emirates’ lounge network and offering.
Brisbane: Emirates’ first-ever overseas lounge
While most major airlines will have a lounge or three at their home hub, only a smaller set operate own-brand lounges at overseas ports: and with Emirates, that journey started in 2004 with the opening of the airline’s first ‘outstation’ lounge at Brisbane Airport.
But why Brisbane rather than a busier airport like Sydney, London Heathrow or New York JFK? It all came down to timing as well as the airport's attitude.
“Lots of airports have space, but they are very reluctant to give it to an airline because an airline lounge is a complimentary service," Surendra explains.
"They’d rather give it to an independent lounge operator,” which will generate more revenue – of which the airport typically takes a cut – by charging passengers entry.
“But Brisbane Airport had the space, they were willing to give us a space, and we thought, ‘great, this is where we would like to test this’: the ability to bring our inflight product onto the ground, and look at the whole customer journey from end to end.”
“Brisbane was our test bed – we weren’t sure what kind of food customers would like, what kind of beverages – and we made some very clear distinctions to differentiate it from the aircraft.”
Over the 15 years to follow, Emirates’ network of lounges outside Dubai has grown from one lounge in Brisbane to 34 lounges around the world: the equivalent of opening a new lounge location every 5-6 months, as well as seven lounges at Dubai Airport split across business and first class.
Direct boarding from lounge to aircraft
One of Emirates’ signature features both in Dubai and at selected overseas locations is direct boarding from lounge to aircraft: the ability to relax and settle into the lounge, and then when it’s time to board, step straight onto the plane without wandering back through the terminal.
Emirates currently offers this at its Concourse A business class and first class lounges in Dubai, a dialled-back version at selected gates nearby Dubai’s Concourse B business class and first class lounges, as well as at London Heathrow, New York JFK, Milan Malpensa, Brisbane Airport and Perth Airport.
Although convenient for passengers, this can be tricky to put in place, given it requires either an additional aerobridge channel be built – such as in Brisbane, where it connects the lounge to the aircraft – or the careful positioning of elevators to take travellers straight to their flight’s departure gate area, as in Dubai Concourse A.
When asked why Emirates doesn’t expand this to more overseas lounges, “we have to convince the airport authority to help us put in this infrastructure,” Surendra elaborates, and “not many airports are willing.”
Particularly at outstation lounges, the ability to then use that direct boarding channel is also impacted if Emirates’ aircraft can’t park at the one gate attached to the lounge, such as when another airline’s flight is delayed at that gate, or the terminal is busy.
“Fortunately in places like JFK, we always get absolute priority of getting our aircraft (at the direct boarding gate). Milan and London Heathrow as well, because of the number of flights. And they turn the aircraft around quite fast, so that does help.”
Breathing new life into Emirates’ overseas lounges
Airport lounges have changed a lot over the years, and regular Emirates flyers can quickly spot the difference between an old-design Emirates lounge – such as currently seen in Sydney and Brisbane – and a fresher design, like in Melbourne and Perth.
Getting all 34 of Emirates’ outstation lounges into that new look and feel takes time, but so far, around 20 have either been rebuilt from scratch in a new location or completely refurbished, being more than half the network.
Most recently refurbished: the lounge at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport, soon to be followed by the Emirates lounge in Johannesburg.
“If my boss had his way, he’d have them all done by yesterday,” Surendra quips, but explains that “the challenge when we close a lounge in some airports can be that we have no other lounge to go to: and customers really get irate about that!”
Even if there is another lounge potentially available, “we also need a way to get passengers in, because sometimes that lounge could be a competitor’s and they don't want us having access to that. In some airports we’ve even had to offer customers vouchers, purely because the third-party lounge didn’t do justice at all, and we could not send a premium customer to one of those lounges.”
Emirates lounges: refurbishing vs. moving
To avoid disruption to passengers' pre-flight time in closing an existing lounge for refurbishments, Emirates sometimes gets around this by building a brand new lounge in an alternative location, with travellers continuing to use the ‘old’ lounge while construction takes place, before moving across to the new facility when it’s ready.
That’s the plan for Sydney, but uncertainty around broader airport expansion works has put a pause on those plans for now, while also making a renovation of the existing lounge impossible to justify.
“Sydney is ... considering building an additional pier, so what we said is, ‘if you're moving to a new pier, we would like to get space there’.”
“So that’s a big factor, that ability for the airports to engage with us, tell us about their build time frame, so that we can match our lounge, either a refurbishment or a shift (to a new space).”
In Brisbane, the plan is instead to refurbish the existing space. Emirates could not confirm when these works would commence, but shared that "most lounge refurbishments take at least 16-20 weeks", and that access to an alternative lounge would be provided during that refurbishment.
It's expected that passengers would instead be directed to the Qantas International Lounge at Brisbane Airport, which Emirates business class and first class passengers, along with Qantas and Skywards Gold and Platinum members, can already access when flying with Emirates, under the Qantas + Emirates Joint Venture.
Where next for an all-new Emirates lounge?
Given the costs of both building and operating each airport lounge, Emirates has an internal ‘rule’ that for a new lounge to be built, there needs to be at least two daily Emirates flights from that airport: otherwise, the lounge would only be open for a few hours each day.
This is one of the reasons that Adelaide, which currently has just one daily Emirates flight to Dubai, remains the only Australian port without an own-brand Emirates lounge. Emirates directs eligible passengers to use the Qantas lounge here instead.
“Any top-tier city in the world where we fly two or three times (each day), we are constantly talking to them,” Surendra admits. In many cases, “we want to create this experience, but it's just impossible to get the space.”
“Take Amsterdam (Schiphol), for example. We've been talking to them for many of years. They’ve said, ‘we would like to give you the space, but we can't give it to you now’. Or ‘if we're building a pier, we'll let you know’.”
Keeping his cards close to his chest until there’s something formal to announce, Surendra hints that in the same week as this meeting with Executive Traveller, “I'm travelling to Europe to look at a particular destination (for a lounge). So, it's always on the cards: always.”
Why no dedicated first class lounges outside of Dubai, or even a VIP lounge?
With such broad investments in both airport lounges and first class inflight cabins, it begs the question why the airline hasn’t opened a dedicated first class lounge for these travellers outside Dubai: or, created a first-class-only space within its existing outstation lounges, even if just for an upgraded pre-flight dining experience.
“To be honest, the space that we have is not adequate to do that,” Surendra outlines, “but if we had a greenfield, that's something that we'll definitely consider.”
“The challenge for us is that, even at JFK which went through a massive refurbishment recently, it still didn’t have the space: only enough for a buffet, so what we’re trying to do is improve through our menus, through that offering – and through the beverage aspect.”
That’s particularly true for passengers that the airline considers its absolute highest-tier flyers: members of the invitation-only iO program who are also travelling in first class.
“With our iO database, we know who they are, and what their preferences are,” Surendra says with a smile. For instance, “we know we have a particular customer who likes a certain type of tea. And when he comes through, that tea is available, and we would always know to ask, ‘would you like your usual cup of tea?’”
“Even when we ask, we already know the answer: so the tea will be kept aside and ready,” and it’s the same with favourite meals, both in Dubai’s first class lounges and the airline’s broader outstation lounges.
Unlike its partner Qantas, which maintains a network of private, invitation-only Chairman’s Lounges in major cities, Emirates has no separate lounges for its own by-invitation iO members, but there are still ways to recognise VIPs.
“You know, it doesn't need a database or a specially cordoned off area – these are regular travellers, so it’s those subtle things that you can do without having to be very prominent, which keeps the customer surprised.”
An example given is that some regular flyers are known to favour certain parts of each lounge, or even particular seats: so before that passenger even checks in, staff “would demarcate that, but it’s not overt: the staff will say, ‘let me take you to your usual seat’.”
Could Priority Pass be the next step for Emirates?
While Emirates builds its lounges primarily to serve its own customers, many of those lounges – even in airports with multiple daily flights – sit closed for much of the day: a problem that some savvy airlines have turned into a revenue opportunity.
Virgin Atlantic, for instance, now operates many of its outstation Clubhouse lounges in two modes: full ‘Virgin Atlantic mode’ with à la carte dining and cocktail bar service when its own customers stop by, and a dialled-back buffet during designated windows where Priority Pass members can use the lounge when travelling with any airline.
For this, Virgin Atlantic gets paid a per-person entry fee from Priority Pass during times the lounge would otherwise be closed, without impacting upon the experience for Virgin Atlantic flyers.
When asked if that’s a move Emirates would consider, Surendra says that “we wouldn’t, purely because when a customer goes into an Emirates lounge, even if they’re not flying with us, we still want them to understand that’s what we stand for: that’s our product, that’s our offering.”
In a refreshing level of honesty, he also shares that “for us, to bring it down to a level where we can make money would really be against our brand values. That has always been the ethos of Emirates that this would never be positioned just to claw back the cost,” explaining that Emirates views its lounges as value-adds for premium passengers rather than cost centres.
Aviation is still a business, of course, so where a certain lounge needs more footfall to be sustainable, Emirates instead considers requests from other airlines who want their passengers to access that lounge – such as in Los Angeles.
Although Emirates had two daily flights from LA when that lounge was planned and opened, this was eventually pared back to a single daily service in 2017 amid weakened travel demand to the United States, which left that LAX lounge serving just one set of passengers each day.
Around the same time, Virgin Australia had begun moving out of lounges operated by Air New Zealand in light of tensions brewing between the two carriers, which included the Star Alliance business class and first class lounges at LAX. Even though the LAX lounge of Virgin partner and Emirates rival Etihad Airways was available, this was a temporary solution and quickly proved too small and inadequate for the number of Virgin Australia passengers flying through.
With Emirates in need of more passengers in its own lounge, Virgin Australia requiring a bigger space than Etihad could offer, and the separate Joint Venture between Emirates and Virgin’s rival Qantas not covering the shores of North America, the solution was for Virgin Australia to move into the Emirates lounge at LAX.
With up to three daily Virgin Australia departures from Los Angeles – to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – passenger numbers quickly climbed and both airlines were happy: as were passengers, who could enjoy the full Emirates lounge experience before jetting back on those long Virgin flights to Australia.
“This is a very good example of a good brand affiliation that passengers love, and which doesn't impact our own customers at all,” Surendra continues, explaining also why the lounge experience for Virgin Australia guests at LAX is the same as for passengers boarding an Emirates flight.
“We do get requests all the time from top-tier airlines asking for access to our lounges, but it’s always part of our discussions that we won’t differentiate and offer an airline a lower level of service at the lounge just to make it viable to them.”
“We want their customers to come in and have a great experience, but also to realise that this is the Emirates experience. It's not a ‘we'll do it just to fill the lounge up’ kind of thing.”
Whether in Dubai or an airport further afield, visiting an Emirates lounge “is like coming home,” Surendra says, and keeping Emirates’ lounges strictly on-brand helps maintain that feel for the airline’s frequent flyers, for whom every trip begins at an airport lounge.
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Dubai as a guest of Emirates.