Airport Lounges Get an Upgrade

When Ben Griffith has to get work done while waiting for a flight, the last place he wants to go is a crowded gate or noisy restaurant.

British Airways lounge at San Francisco Airport
Photo by Darren Booth for
British Airways lounge at San Francisco Airport

Instead, he retreats to Delta Air Lines' Sky Club, where he can use a meeting room or grab a healthy snack or beverage for free.

"I can usually get a ton of work done at the Sky Clubs without the noise and distraction of the main concourse," says Griffith, a Cleveland, Miss., attorney.

After years of neglect, airlines are turning their attention back to their airport lounges. As competition for the lucrative business traveler has intensified, airlines are pumping money into their lounges, adding more comfortable seating and power outlets, plus upgrading snacks, drinks and other amenities.

American Airlines is renovating its Admirals Club lounges at New York LaGuardia, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta and other airports. Delta Air Lines has spent about $30 million over the last three years to renovate and open new Sky Clubs in cities such as Philadelphia and Seattle. After closing many clubs in 2008, US Airways is reopening some, including one in Raleigh-Durham, and upgrading others, including one at Washington's Reagan National Airport.

International airlines are also finding value in lounges. After unveiling a new 160-seat Prestige Class Lounge at Incheon International Airport last year in Seoul, Korean Air is now planning to expand its lounge at Los Angeles International Airport. Since 2008, Lufthansa Airlines has invested in more than 10 new lounges and refurbished more than five. And Qantas is constructing first- and business-class lounges in Los Angeles that will be three times the size of the current space. New first-class lounges will also open in airports in Singapore and Hong Kong.

"Lounges really reinforce an airline's image, and they're a strong branding technique," says Penny Pfaelzer, a spokeswoman for Korean Air. "They're often a traveler's first impression of an airline."

Even some airports are realizing the importance of lounges. Mineta San Jose International Airport officials have proposed building a lounge to accommodate travelers on a new All Nippon Airways flight to Tokyo.

"Both airlines and airports recognize that there is increased competition, and there's always a need to look at how you can improve the travel experience," says Deborah McElroy, executive vice president of policy and external affairs for Airports Council International-North America.

Lounges became popular after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. When security tightened, passengers had to get to the airport hours before flights. Airlines saw a lucrative opportunity. But as the economy worsened and their revenues dropped, they had to trim costs. Lounges were easy to cut.

As the economy picked up again and carriers consolidated, airlines once again started seeing lounges as revenue generators.

"When we build a new clubhouse, we see a boost in terms of upper-class ticket sales," says Chris Rossi, head of Virgin Atlantic North America, which recently opened a Clubhouse at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. "They're clearly game-changers for us."

Many travelers gain access to lounges through their airline loyalty programs or credit card rewards programs, or by buying a business- or first-class ticket. Travelers can also buy annual memberships, but most airlines now offer day passes, usually for about $50.

Experts say it is yet another way airlines are making money through ancillary fees, or extra fees for extra benefits.

"Airlines have been very successful in their ancillary strategy," McElroy says. "This is the next step. We're going to tailor options and make the traveler experience better for people."

Not only have the lounges gotten bigger, but they've also gotten better. "We're really starting to see innovative and cool lounge products," says Kelley Moore, general manager for Delta Sky Clubs.

Most beer, wine and liquor is free at Delta's clubs. But last year, the airline launched a Luxury Bar with upgraded liquor, wine, champagne and signature cocktails for sale. Passengers are sometimes treated to free tastings.

At Virgin's new lounge at JFK, travelers get one free 15-minute spa treatment, such as a massage. Longer massages, hair styling, manicures and pedicures cost $20 to $40. Food is free, and don't expect just hummus and pretzels — a full menu includes appetizers, entrees and desserts.

Lufthansa's First Class lounges have personal assistants on hand for travelers. The Frankfurt lounge has a spa where passengers can get massages, facials and other beauty treatments.

And to appeal to the business traveler, all lounges have work stations with plenty of cords, free Wi-Fi, computers, printers, fax machines and more.

Don Schmincke, an adviser at an executive education institute who lives in Baltimore, was willing to pay a few hundred dollars for his United Airlines club annual membership.

"When your day is mostly spent at airports, it's kind of the first thing I look for," he says. "You get out of the crowd and, for just a moment, you're able to be in something like a living room."