Here’s why airport lounges are so crowded these days

It might sound like the very definition of a ‘first-world problem’, but airport lounges are becoming increasingly packed.

By Bloomberg News, August 31 2022
Here’s why airport lounges are so crowded these days

The All Nippon Airways lounge at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport was once an uncrowded refuge of calm for business travelers, favored for such perks as free made-to-order noodles, a private shower, and comfy chairs with views of the tarmac and planes taxiing.

But on a recent Tuesday afternoon while connecting flights at the busy airport, Paige Emerich, a United Airlines frequent flyer, had to circle through the lounge several times before she could even find a seat. “It was packed, packed, packed,” she says. “I’m still trying to be socially distanced, but there’s no social distancing in there right now.”

Emerich’s experience isn’t unique. Business class lounges around the world can be standing room-only as corporate road warriors get back on planes, affluent flyers treat themselves to no-expense-spared holidays, and regular travelers pay for lounge memberships or premium credit cards that offer access to escape the hustle and bustle of airport departure halls.

The packed lounges come at a critical time for airlines. After almost two years of virtually no international travel, they’re looking to revive earnings and trim losses with sky-high airfares. Disappointing their most valuable and revenue-generating premium passengers with poor service is something they can ill afford.

There are numerous reasons business class lounges – which almost always offer goodies including free Champagne, wine, spirits, quality nibbles and Internet access – are more crowded than usual.

Once the preserve of first  and business class passengers or loyal frequent flyer program members with elite status, many lounges are also available to other travelers through paid access.

Meanwhile, premium credit cards such as American Express also offer lounge access as a benefit to some customers.

A squeeze at Singapore

The recent jump in the number of delayed and canceled flights has also caused more travelers to spend longer times in these once-exclusive enclaves. Lingering Covid-19 curbs have left some traditionally busy aviation hubs – Hong Kong, for instance – largely off limits, funneling more travelers through alternatives such as Singapore or Tokyo.

And some lounges simply haven’t reopened since the pandemic, boosting crowding at those that are.

The explosion in demand has made it almost impossible for airport lounges to increase their overall footprint in response, says David Flynn, editor in chief of Executive Traveller, a website focused on premium travel.

Waves of people who’ve held off on traveling are now ready to fly, and we’re going to see “more making a beeline for the airport lounge,” Flynn says. “On top of that, every delay means people remain for longer in lounges that are already bursting at the seams.”

An empty British Airways lounge at Heathrow T5 is a rare sight these days...
An empty British Airways lounge at Heathrow T5 is a rare sight these days...

It’s unlikely the overcrowding will end soon. Travel operators from TUI, the world’s biggest package tour operator, to British online travel agent Thomas Cook Group report demand that’s above pre-pandemic levels.

Europe’s travel industry is seeing bumper summer sales. Average travel prices are currently around one-fifth above pre-pandemic levels, and UK bookings for the upcoming winter season are up compared with last year, TUI said this month.

That’s resulting in scenes like one earlier this month at Doha International Airport, where in the wee hours of the morning about 30 weary passengers lined up at the bottom of an escalator to get into the packed Oryx Lounge.

At the British Airways lounge in Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on a Friday afternoon in July, people were being advised to use the South Lounge because the North was too crowded.

At Singapore Airlines’ refurbished business class lounge at Changi Airport, a crowd of travelers milled around the empty Champagne station as harried servers rushed about looking for fresh bottles.

Last month, Stephen Dorrough was traveling from Salt Lake City to Tokyo on business.

While connecting at Los Angeles International Airport, he visited both United Airlines’ Polaris lounge, available to first and business class travelers on long-haul trips, and the Club lounge.

The latter was less busy than the more exclusive Polaris one, he says. “The lounge experience of seven or eight years ago has changed,” says Dorrough. “It’s not so relaxing because there are lots of people around.”

Early arrivals, delayed departures

On the few business trips he did make during the pandemic, Dorrough found many lounges shuttered.

Some still are: at Narita, the United lounge was closed in early July, and travelers were directed to ANA’s lounge, where a long line snaked out past the welcome desk

The Japanese carrier’s lounge, which was taking in passengers from more than a dozen other carriers, had a sign out front saying it wasn’t accepting customers from the LoungeKey or Priority Pass lounge membership networks “due to congestion.”

At a time when many full-service carriers are counting on premium and business travelers to buoy profits, perks that disappoint can risk alienating these prime customers.

“If business lounges are constantly overcrowded and you don’t get the service you expect as a frequent traveler, you’ll be less loyal, which is the object of the lounge – to spur loyalty,” says George Ferguson, a senior analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Delta Air Lines is now restricting how long travellers can spend in its Sky Club lounges.
Delta Air Lines is now restricting how long travellers can spend in its Sky Club lounges.

Some airlines have even started to restrict lounge access, with a few instituting a two- or three-hour maximum to eliminate scenarios where travelers, fearing delays or check-in snarls, get to the airport well ahead of time and just camp out.

“Many airlines and airports are requesting that people arrive earlier than usual for their flight to avoid logjams,” Executive Traveller’s Flynn explains.

This also means people get to the lounge earlier and spend more time ahead of their flight, so the overall number of passenger in the lounge at any given time is greater than normal.”

As of June 1, Delta Air Lines started restricting Sky Club members from entering its lounges until three hours prior to their departure time.

Overcrowding in the American Express flagship Centurion lounges has prompted the company to axe complimentary guest privileges for some Platinum cardholders, beginning February 2023: unless cardholders spend US$75,000 annually, they’ll be charged US$50 per guest, when previously they could take two guests into its lounges for free.

This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media : the original article can be viewed here

03 Jun 2019

Total posts 19

So here comes the question: should more airlines adpot a minimum spending requirement in addition to their existing qualification/requalification threshold to avoid crowdedness in lounges?

Me personally absolutely hate it but that's what the big airlines have been doing these days.

cow
cow

25 Aug 2017

Total posts 18

Off topic, but I intend giving two Qantas Club invitation in October to family.  However, they have a (well behaved) 11 month old, does anyone know if she would automatically be included?  If not, how can I give her an  invitation in her name, or  perhaps give two  to one of the parents?  It will be in the  Sydney international lounge.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Jan 2018

Total posts 38

Sadly not. No guests, including children

https://www.qantas.com/au/en/frequent-flyer/the-qantas-club/complimentary-invitations.html

06 Jun 2017

Total posts 28

It may be necessary for those who don’t have a dedicated lounge membership. I’ve been a Qantas Club member for 28 years and certainly DON’ T expect to be subjected to limited lounge access . The complimentary access for certain cardholders should be limited first if any limiting is necessary.

29 Jan 2012

Total posts 142

Simple answer, but may be shot down for sharing my views. If airlines return to when only First and Business class passengers were able to enjoy the perk, then space and comfort will return to the lounges. No annual club subscriptions, no economy cabin FF Status flyers or paid entry, no sharing lounges with other airlines or credit card suppliers, simply you flew premium and you enjoyed the perk. Just like Qantas did in the 70's and early 80's with their Captains Club lounges both at the airport and upstairs in their 747's - The days before Flight Deck and Qantas Clubs.

This would no doubt solve the overcrowding problem, but I wonder how many readers and revenue hungry airline managers will disagree with me.

09 May 2017

Total posts 39

As a Platinum flyer that would normally fly business long haul but also flys economy on shorter flights I absolutely would be less loyal - its on of only 3 reasons I maintain status - access to a call centre, access to priority queues and good lounge access

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 Jan 2018

Total posts 33

I wonder how sustainable it is to run lounges for business and first class customers only. 

Perhaps overcrowding can be alleviated (though I wonder it is that simple, citing the example of a traveller re Polaris vs. Club Lounge in the article above) but many frequent flyers would probably ditch loyalty to any airline if lounge access is taken from the list of perks. 

Also without a certain volume of customers I wonder if it even operationally and financially makes sense to run a la carte dining or spa room, or sauna even at  certain OneWorld First lounges. If not, perhaps certain features of a lounge may need to be cut back.

Give and take ;)

This was happening before Covid. Sat in a packed to capacity (and dirty) Qantas Business Lounge in Jo'burg. None of the very nice passengers around us were actually traveling Business Class. The same trip we experienced the Turkish Airline Business Lounge in Istanbul...enormous, beautifully designed...amazing. Emirates the same. We know why the lounges are crowded, now fix the problem or people will vote with their feet (or seats!)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer - Chairmans Lounge

01 Sep 2011

Total posts 411

The Emirates lounge(s) in dubai full?? Not once have I been in the first lounge and its full. You can fire a cannon in there and never hit anyone. The restaurant in the QF first lounge in Sydney last friday was VERY busy, but there was space with the couches.

11 Apr 2012

Total posts 4

Firstly, I can tell you are incorrect. I was in the big main first lounge upstairs on the 21-7-22 and it was full to the hilt and was lucky to get a seat. It was early morning, the staff were working extremely hard with service. I was lucky enough to be told there was a second First lounge in the next building along and moved to that instead, which had ample room and I found it better as you could look out onto the tarmac also, with decent meals on offer and drink.

17 Apr 2017

Total posts 1

Yep, I’ve stopped using many lounges for this reason.  In fact, some airports now are so well served by good bars/restaurants/cafes, it’s often easier to find more tranquility outside of the lounge.   I pop in to use the ablutions as they’re normally cleaner.  Other than that, it’s often happily outside for me.  

Etihad - Etihad Guest

21 Jul 2019

Total posts 144

RE: the sub-heading. When somebody refers to so-called 'First World Problem', I gently correct them by saying there is no such thing. There are simply problems of quality (good or bad) and standards (high or low), regardless of who you are, the context and where you live.

Mif
Mif

31 Aug 2022

Total posts 1

I agree with traveller90. If I'm paying BC or 1st fares Internationally or domestic I should be able to get a seat in the lounge. I went through Doha on my way to Madrid last December and I've never seen anything like the packed lounge. (many people were spread out across 2 seats sleeping.)  That was very off putting as no staff asked them to refrain whilst folks were sitting on the small hard wall!   It's made me rethink flying with them again. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Jul 2018

Total posts 22

I am a generally infrequent leisure traveler paying for Qantas Club membership to enjoy on my biannual global journey to follow the sun and occasional interstate trips.    I note the value of my FF points has been reduced by the Leprechaun to an almost nil worth ... Now he wants to lower the value of my cash paid membership of QC.   Methinks time for a rethink of my travel plans and providers. Trans Pacific cruising at a lower price than a J seat appears to be a worthwhile option as I do have the time available.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 2

Visited Singapore Airlines business class lounge in Singapore a week ago and it was so crowded we struggled to find a seat. Beer was warm and food offerings mediocre. The experience on the flights was good but the lounge was a big step down from pre Covid times.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 Jan 2018

Total posts 33

Interesting. Singapore Airlines business lounge is only reserved for business class flyers and above. (I understand that Singapore Airlines have now funneled those economy-class flyers with status to a more mediocre Gold Lounge). The fact that it is still crowded means that there are just indeed many people with a lot of cash to spend on business class or higher tickets.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 May 2012

Total posts 582

Changi still hasn't reopened T2, so keep in mind that SIA only has its T3 lounges to accommodate guests.

01 Sep 2022

Total posts 1

Lots of options, but two I like are:

1) build more or expand existing lounges [many airports and terminals need more lounges]

2) apply the 3-hour (before departure) rule to all lounges

Preferential seating for premium passengers vs frequent flyers in economy: I don't know how this could be managed but I'd sure like to see some arrangement where as a high-revenue business class passenger I could always get a seat in the lounge, as the lounge is very much part of the business class proposition.

Limit access to T-3  hours: sounds good in theory but to be honest, in AU at least, how many passengers go to a lounge for much longer than they have to? Okay, I can see the Qantas First Lounges at SYD and MEL being an exception for some, but a s a rule you'd think most people are at a domestic lounge maybe 60-90m before their flight, and an international lounge 2-3 hours simply because of the earlier checkin times. And in both cases there are also people who come on a connecting flight and maybe they will have a lot of hours between flights, that's not their fault.

Boosting lounge capacity: it's probably too late for this, but it would have been smart for airlines and airports to work together and have the airline temporarily take over some of the empty retail shop space and turn that into a pop-up 'overflow' lounge with simple seating, basic food and drinks in a nice-looking display area and fridge, maybe a barista.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

03 Sep 2015

Total posts 3

As someone who pays for business class out of my own pocket for international leisure travel or personally upgrading to business class for domestic work travel, i absolutely would want to see preferential treatment for those sitting in Business and First to be prioritised.   

Singapore biz lounge at T3 in Changi has been ridiculously busy in the 3 times iv been so far this year , both pre/post refurbishment.   Qantas domestic lounges are also dreadful i find. 

This could be as simple as managing one or a combination of:

- When a lounge is at x% capacity say 80%, all non business/first travellers are not allowed in until capacity has freed up 

- Maintaining a ratio of only x% of non premium travellers 

- Non premium travellers are only allowed to enter the lounge within X hours of a flight 

This should be easy enough to do given when you check into the lounge, they know when your flight is and so know when you will be leaving the lounge at the latest

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 Mar 2016

Total posts 53

Hi,

Just flew from Paris to Tokyo Haneda to Sydney to Gold Coast on Tuesday 30th August and none of the lounges, Air France at CDG and Sakura at HND were that busy and the Sakura lounge at Haneda was so quiet for most of the three hours I was there. I thought that the Sakura lounge was very underwhelming with a very limited selection of food and drink on offer, though the view from the lounge of the airport was great.

 


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