The evolution of alliance lounges

Airport lounges have changed over the years, and those operated by alliances on behalf of their member airlines are no exception.

By Chris Chamberlin, August 16 2019

It’s been 18 years since travellers first experienced an airport lounge operated not by their airline, but by an airline alliance instead, with the 2001 opening of the branded Star Alliance Lounge at Zurich Airport heralding a trend that would quickly grow around the world.

A lot has changed since then, of course: Star Alliance welcomed Zurich-based airline SWISS into the fold in 2006, and subsequently closed Zurich’s Star Alliance branded lounge in favour of Star’s member airlines sharing what’s grown into eight SWISS-branded lounges at Zurich Airport.

But that initial Star Alliance Lounge at Zurich wasn’t built in vain. The group now operates a network of branded lounges spanning eight cities, each of which still incorporates design elements seen in that debutante lounge, yet with modern tweaks and local style giving each facility a familiar-yet-different look and feel.

Star Alliance isn’t alone on the ‘alliance lounge’ front, either. Rival SkyTeam opened the doors to its first branded SkyTeam Lounge later that same decade, a facility that’s still used by travellers today at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 4, and which quickly doubled in size from one storey to two.

Then, there’s Oneworld, which is expected to open its first-ever branded and operated alliance lounge in the coming year: a change in tact from that of years past, where at selected airports, its member airlines would simply band together to create dual-brand or even tri-brand lounges, as opposed to a unified ‘Oneworld Lounge’.

Join Executive Traveller as we wind the clock back through the history of the humble alliance lounge, and sit down with executives at Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance to learn more about what travellers can expect in the years to come.

Zurich, the first alliance lounge of them all

Designed by Canadian firm KPMB Architects, the original Star Alliance Lounge at Zurich Airport debuted in August 2001, playing on the concept of an “urban garden”.

The original Star Alliance Lounge at Zurich Airport

Dividing the space was a combination of slatted wood and woven stainless steel screens, which helped segregate each section without completely blocking one key element: natural light.

The original Star Alliance Lounge at Zurich Airport

As the prototype alliance lounge, its creators were also asked to establish design standards and elements that could be adopted to future Star Alliance Lounges.

The original Star Alliance Lounge at Zurich Airport

Wood and stone were quickly selected as favourites, and were subsequently heroed in future Star Alliance Lounges including in Los Angeles when first opened in 2007, as well as Nagoya, where that theme can still be seen today.

Star Alliance Lounge, Nagoya

Then came SkyTeam’s first alliance lounge

With Star Alliance getting the head start on its network of own-brand lounges, SkyTeam jumped on the ‘alliance lounge’ train in June 2009, planting its flag at London Heathrow’s Terminal 4.

By the end of the same year, SkyTeam’s lounge had expanded onto a second level and offered travellers everything from spa treatments and Champagne through to an Oxygen Bar, delivering 10-minute sessions of pure oxygen: available in “pure air” or citrus flavours.

London Heathrow's SkyTeam Lounge

While that oxygen bar is long gone, many of the other original design characteristics can still be seen in London 10 years later, serving as a template for what would become a network of SkyTeam Lounges worldwide.

Perhaps the most iconic to SkyTeam is the lounge’s “living wall”, home to more than 60 species of plants which serve as much more than decoration: acting as a natural air purifier for lounge guests.

London Heathrow's SkyTeam Lounge

These plants were selected based on their ability to grow without soil, as well as for their suitability to the local climate: factors that are also considered by botanists when designing living walls for each new SkyTeam lounge that opens worldwide.

Executive Traveller review: SkyTeam Lounge, London

What’s old is new again in Los Angeles

Fast-forward to 2013, and despite Star Alliance having opened its Los Angeles lounge just six years prior, the alliance brought a significant upgrade to the home of Hollywood, revealing all-new Star Alliance business class and first class lounges at LAX.

The Star Alliance business class lounge in Los Angeles

With amenities like a staffed cocktail bar and buffet dining area, the revamp also saw the introduction of two spaces highly popular with passengers: an indoor terrace, overlooking the Tom Bradley International Terminal’s departures area…

The Star Alliance business class lounge in Los Angeles

… as well as an outdoor terrace: currently the only one of its kind at LAX, at which passengers can kick back with a drink and snack even on a cool day, thanks to heating lamps throughout and added warmth from campfire-style fires, safely kept behind glass:

The Star Alliance business class lounge in Los Angeles

Speaking with Executive Traveller at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Annual General Meeting in Seoul, Star Alliance Vice President Customer Experience, Christian Draeger explains that when it comes to the alliance’s lounges, passengers appreciate having “consistency in terms of how they are serviced.”

That's one of the biggest drawcards to operating an alliance lounge versus relying on a third-party lounge.

However, “customers don't want to always have the same layout, the same furniture, the same interior” from lounge to lounge, which became a consideration as Star Alliance’s branded lounge network continued to grow.

“They want to have a reflection of the city that they’re visiting,” Draeger adds, with the alliance’s flagship project at LAX serving as the turning point towards Star Alliance lounges that retain the brand’s relatable look and feel, but which draw more of their design inspiration from the local city and area.

“If you sit (in Los Angeles) on a good day, you can see the Hollywood Sign. You're in an outdoor area with an open chimney, which just gives you this ‘LA’ feeling. From what we've seen and how our customers react, they really appreciate that.”

Executive Traveller review: Star Alliance business class lounge, LA

Also reviewed: Star Alliance first class lounge, Los Angeles

When in Rome, do as the Romans do

Skip ahead five years to 2018, the opening of the Star Alliance Lounge in Rome, and that focus on more of a ‘local’ look and feel has well and truly transcended from influencing only the design of the lounge, to also serving as the bedrock upon which the lounge’s food and beverage service is created.

Star Alliance Lounge, Rome

Dining here is centred on Italian favourites, with made-to-order pasta and plenty of pizza:

Pizza served at the Star Alliance Lounge, Rome

On the beverage front, the signature cocktail is based on Limoncello Sorrento, mixed with Aperol, lemon and lime – or if you’d prefer something caffeinated, order-up a true local cappuccino, crafted by a bowtie-wearing barista.

Executive Traveller review: Star Alliance Lounge, Rome

Since then, Star Alliance has opened an all-new lounge at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and refurbished its business class and first class lounges at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, but going forward, the alliance doesn’t see a future in creating more first-class-only alliance lounges.

“If you look at our current first class lounges, these are mostly in conjunction with our Star Alliance business class lounges, where there’s a smaller part of the lounge that we can allocate to first class,” Draeger continues.

The Star Alliance first class lounge in Los Angeles

“But the offer of first class amongst our carriers is actually reducing, so while we are keeping our first class sections in the lounges that have them, we don't foresee that this is an expanding segment: we are predominantly focused on the business class and Star Alliance Gold section (of lounges).”

Star Alliance now offers branded lounge facilities in Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Nagoya, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Rome and Sao Paulo.

SkyTeam looks to the future of its own lounges

With six SkyTeam Lounges already part of the alliance’s network – found in Beijing, Dubai, Hong Kong, Sydney and Vancouver, joining the original SkyTeam lounge in London – these will grow to eight lounges by the year’s end with openings in Istanbul and Santiago.

SkyTeam Lounge, Sydney

Executive Traveller review: SkyTeam Lounge, Sydney

Unlike Star Alliance, SkyTeam generally repeats the same design style from one lounge to the next, adopting the template to fit the space available at each airport rather than taking local inspiration into account: but that may change as new lounges continue to open around the world, hints SkyTeam CEO Kristin Colvile.

“That's something we’re now looking at: what do our members want from our SkyTeam lounges? Do they want that consistency, or do they want them more in aligned with their location?”

“We definitely see lounges becoming more significant in the customer journey,” Colvile adds. “You see more and more investment going into lounges throughout the world for many airlines… and our overall lounge strategy is developed in conjunction with all of our members.”

As previously reported, this review of the alliance’s lounge network will also cover SkyTeam’s broader lounge access policies, and whether those should be relaxed to provide lounge access to business class and SkyTeam Elite Plus frequent flyers taking domestic-only flights.

Read: SkyTeam considers lounge access for domestic travellers

And then, there’s Oneworld...

Yet to open its first own-brand lounge, Oneworld has been sitting back and taking its time – but under the direction of CEO Rob Gurney, that’s soon set to change.

“We certainly will have concluded our first lounge this year, (but) whether it will actually be opened and operational depends on the location; whether it’s a new build or whether it’s a modification of an existing build,” Gurney shares with Executive Traveller.

Oneworld CEO Rob Gurney

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that over the next 1.5-2 years, we’d be aiming for somewhere between 2-4 lounges – identified, that is, maybe not opened though.”

Until the first location is announced and opened, Gurney is remaining tight-lipped about what travellers can expect of a Oneworld-branded lounge that they wouldn’t otherwise get from a contract space in the same airport, but did hint that we’re unlikely to see a Oneworld-branded first class lounge any time soon.

“You’ve got to have a lot of first class passengers to really justify having a first class lounge,” he explains, and that’s less likely to be the case at airports which are contenders for a Oneworld-branded lounge, being those that aren’t the home turf of any Oneworld carrier.

“The size of today’s first class cabins are much smaller than business class … so it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to create a Oneworld first class lounge … outside of a Oneworld hub”, given how few passengers could use it, even though top-tier Oneworld Emerald frequent flyers would also have access.

Compared to SkyTeam and Star Alliance, that remains a key point of difference for Oneworld: but with the alliance having no immediate plans to create new Oneworld-branded first class lounges, decisions on where to open and maintain first class lounges remain with each airline.

Also read: Oneworld pushing back on bespoke own-brand airport lounges to 2020?

Chris Chamberlin travelled to Seoul as a guest of IATA and Korean Air: a SkyTeam alliance airline.


Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin is the Associate Editor of Executive Traveller and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a great latte, a theatre ticket and a glass of wine!

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