Behind the 15-year evolution of Emirates' airport lounges

Emirates has one of the largest international lounge networks of any airline, so how did it come about, and what's next?

By Chris C., October 5 2019
Behind the 15-year evolution of Emirates' airport lounges

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.

The Emirates Lounge at Brisbane Airport
The Emirates 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.

Read: Your guide to Emirates' business, first class lounges in Dubai

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.

Direct boarding from lounge to aircraft at Emirates' Brisbane Airport lounge
Direct boarding from lounge to aircraft at Emirates' Brisbane Airport lounge

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.

The Emirates Lounge at Perth Airport, drawn from the airline's newest design template
The Emirates Lounge at Perth Airport, drawn from the airline's newest design template

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.

Read: Inside Emirates iO, a secret club for VIP flyers

“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’.”

Also read: What it's really like inside the Qantas Chairman's Lounge

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.

Virgin Atlantic's LAX Clubhouse welcomes Priority Pass members in the mornings, and Virgin Atlantic passengers in the evenings...
Virgin Atlantic's LAX Clubhouse welcomes Priority Pass members in the mornings, and Virgin Atlantic passengers in the evenings...

ET review: Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, Los Angeles

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.

One flight per day makes for a quiet Emirates lounge at LAX...
One flight per day makes for a quiet Emirates lounge at LAX...

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.

ET review: The Emirates Lounge, Los Angeles

“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.”

When visiting Emirates' LAX lounge, expect the Champagne to be flowing regardless of the airline you're flying...
When visiting Emirates' LAX lounge, expect the Champagne to be flowing regardless of the airline you're flying...

“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.

Also read: Emirates plans first class Champagne Lounge in Dubai

Chris Chamberlin travelled to Dubai as a guest of Emirates.

Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.

American Airlines - AAdvantage

13 Jul 2015

Total posts 276

Honestly, I would say the Emirates lounges in Dubai are some of the most disappointing I've seen - First or Business. They've got an incredibly boring color scheme - they're so large that it's almost always empty (or feels that way for First) and the lounges themselves just feel basic to me. I feel their furniture selection is very old school thinking as well.

Now I'm not talking about service or food selection, because I feel they do those well, but other than that - there's nothing really to be impressed by. I don't know if other's feel the same way or not?


19 Sep 2013

Total posts 197

100% agree, and the main reason why I won't fly Emirates. The Qatar Business lounge in Doha is streets ahead.

Only if you are flying on a paid business seat. If you are a QR gold or above but on an economy ticket you get the worst lounges in Doha.

American Airlines - AAdvantage

13 Jul 2015

Total posts 276

Award seats can also access lounges.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Mar 2015

Total posts 230

Agree with jubbing.

The Emirates lounge in Dubai was horrible. Very hard to find , limited space and so noisy.

I did not find the choice of food and beverages very enjoyable and even though I was through check in etc. it still took me 45 minutes to find the appropriate lounge and it was almost full. Could not get a seat for a while and because of the lateness in finding it did not have enough time there.

Must say it was quite a disappointment only to be followed by the worst Business Class Flight I have ever had but that's a different story.

They're not too bad elsewhere but would not rate them all that highly.

There are a lot better

14 Oct 2016

Total posts 105

I do like Emirates lounges, they tend to offer good quality food and drink in a reasonable environment. I've only ever been to ones not in DXB but probably the only thing missing from some is a staffed bar that could serve out coffees and other beverages.

In regards to Emirates gaudy appearance, I think it is a deliberate move done by the airline to make the product seem better than it is particularly on the 77W which has a business class seat that is a few generations behind other airlines.

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

08 Jun 2018

Total posts 92

Personally I really dislike the lounges at Dubai. For me they are too large and impersonal. What I think Emirates do well with is the consistency of the lounge experience at their myriad out stations. I'm also pleased to learn that they will avoid going down the Priorty Pass route. As soon as lounges become a profit centre in the management accounts there is inevitable impact on services more widely, which affect all users

17 Feb 2017

Total posts 17

I honestly can't believe some of these comments.

17 Feb 2017

Total posts 17

My sincere apologies, it seems the rest of my comment above got lost.

04 Oct 2019

Total posts 2

Am in agreement with Craigh, can't believe these negative comments. Emirates do everything to the highest standards as do SINGAPORE airlines with their Private Room

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer - Chairmans Lounge

01 Sep 2011

Total posts 416

I was recently in the lounge used by EK at Schiphol, I was travelling in F. What an awful overcrowded lounge. By contrast in the F lounge at Dubai, you could fire a cannon and not hit anyone. Sure direct boarding from the lounge is very good but their DXB main F lounge is soulless. I will also point out that the shower rooms, in my view, are terrible. There is no air in them, you can't make the water cooler etc - its the sauna you are having when you are not having a sauna. The point has been made to them time and again. The excuse is that the heat outside doesn't allow the water to cool … err they have build a concrete jungle in the desert, they could tackle this issue at a relatively new airport.

21 Aug 2019

Total posts 64

Each to their own. Must be in a minority who actually preferred the DXB stop on Qantas. From gate to lounge was painless. Plenty of room and showers to freshen up. I think the First Lounge is a bit soulless but again for me it was and is a case of showering, quick bite and out. Now my home lounge is with Qantas. Singapore, great airport etc is a nightmare. From gate 26 at terminal 1 it's a good 10 minute walk or dash and then back. Lounge is great but recently it's a scrum. So have taken refuge elsewhere. EK and its DXB lounges were for this flyer a little place for solitude on the kangaroo run.

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

08 Jun 2018

Total posts 92

Nick -you're right that Singapore can be very busy in the Qantas lounge. The imminent opening of the new 1st lounge should help significantly. And I always find the BA lounge next door an oasis of calm to the current QF lounge.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Oct 2011

Total posts 471

I think the EK lounges are generally excellent. Especially like using them in places like BKK and SIN, where QF either doesn't have its own lounge (BKK), or it's crazy busy (SIN). The EK lounges are generally like an oasis of tranquility with good food and wine.

The DXB lounges are very large which can make them feel a little impersonal, but the service is always very attentive (sometimes too much so!).

Emirates really understands that the lounges are an integral part of the flight experience, not just something that has to be done for the lowest possible cost.

28 Mar 2018

Total posts 31

Not fond of their color scheme but food and beverage amongst the top out there.

Love the high value a la carte meals and classified Bordeaux served at their flagship lounge.

Their direct to gate boarding (concourse dependant) was a luxury.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

12 Jun 2019

Total posts 10

We fly VA to LAX once or twice a year. We generally fly in J. (Velocity platinum so we have seen a few lounges around the world). We find The Emirates Lounge experiences there excellent. We have even been greeted by the lounge manager.

I found the history of how VA came to use this lounge very interesting. I often wondered as Emirates is a qantas partner.

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