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.”
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.
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