In the United States, domestic-airline lounges mainly serve as oases for premium passengers to get away from the masses, relax, catch their breath and enjoy some hors d’oeuvres or a few drinks. But it is on the international stage where airline lounges truly shine.
The Galleries lounges in British Airways’ flagship Terminal 5 at London Heathrow are a prime example of how some carriers go the extra mile to provide luxurious lounges for their most-prized customers, and with good reason – airport lounges have become important tools for airlines, says Henry Harteveldt, chief research officer and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, where he oversees the firm’s airline and travel industry practice. Lounges help to “visually and tangibly enforce an airline’s brand image. Their decor, amenities and service levels help to establish and reinforce what an airline is about.”
Lounges can leave a lasting impression. A few years ago, I used BA’s Galleries Arrivals lounge at Terminal 5, and I still remember how delighted I was to be able to take a shower, have my clothes pressed and my shoes shined, and spend a bit of time in the Elemis Travel Spa.
BA’s VIP and first-class customers have access to The Concorde Room, which features three hotel-style suites with bathrooms, a separate gourmet dining room and bar, a terrace with fantastic views of the airport and a conference room with seats from BA’s now- defunct Concorde fleet. BA has definitely set a very high bar.
Another carrier hitting the mark is Emirates, which has three lounges at Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3: the pay-for- access Marhaba Lounge, which is open to all travellers; the business-class lounge; and the first-class lounge.
The business-class lounge covers around five gates and seemed like a never-ending tunnel, says Nate Vallier, a concierge for the Cranky Concierge travel-assistance service and a former airline employee, who posted his thoughts on the subject on The Cranky Flyer. “It was the biggest lounge I’ve ever been in. It’s designed in little clusters that include areas with tables and a buffet stand with free food and drinks and attendants everywhere.”
The lounge also features a sectioned-off area that has seating pods with between eight and 12 chairs, says Vallier. “Some have sofas and some have TVs, but each area has different colours and features the elements – fire, earth, water and air. The further back you go into club, the less crowded it gets.”
There is also a separate business centre with Wi-Fi and computers. The lounge has a full- service spa that offered massages, pedicures, manicures and facials for a small fee, says Vallier. “It didn’t have a restaurant, but there were numerous food and beverage stations, and they catered to everyone.”
Vallier’s one criticism was the wait for showers. “There were only 10, and there seemed to always be a line, which could last anywhere from 10 minutes up to a half hour.”
But, according to Vallier, the Emirates first- class lounge is out of this world. “The entrance has a 12ft [3.7m] fresh flower bouquet that is changed every three days. It features a typical check-in desk, with four agents and a gentleman in a suit to handle VIPs. There are definitely more employees in here than in the business- class lounge, and they’re always asking if you need help.”
The seating areas were fewer and more private than in the business-class lounge. And there is a restaurant that serves three-course meals 24 hours a day, “with a buffet attached that serves eight hot and eight chilled items”, notes Vallier. “If you want something and the chef can make it, he will.”
The lounge also features a wine store where passengers can participate in tastings, a massive tea bar and a spa offering free treatments.
The Emirates lounges were very clean considering how busy they get, observes Vallier. “I have seen garbage and mess in United Airlines’ Red Carpet Clubs and US Airways Club, and that wasn’t the case in any of Emirates’ lounges,” he says. “All in all, it was a very unique experience.”
According to Atmosphere Research Group’s Harteveldt, there is no question that international carriers outside the United States tend to have the best lounges. He cites as an example the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at London Heathrow, Cathay Pacific’s business and first-class lounges at Hong Kong International Airport and Qatar Airways’ separate premium terminal at Doha International Airport.
These lounges are successful because they are based on brand image and provide services and amenities that travellers want.
In the United States, Harteveldt gives high marks to Delta Sky Clubs. “Delta is in the process of redoing its clubs with an eye toward better seating,” he says. “Many seats have electric outlets, and there are tables and counters so travellers can do work on their laptops. The clubs also have a good food and beverage offering.”
Harteveldt also praises American Airlines’ Admirals Clubs, noting that many have showers and seats with power outlets. US Airways Clubs are the least impressive, says Harteveldt. And United – now United- Continental – neglected its Red Carpet Clubs for far too long , while Continental never had a leading-edge experience with its Presidents Club. “As United and Continental continue with their merger, it will be interesting to see what the new United Club experience will be,” he adds.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
In certain instances, airport lounges are generating revenue for the airlines. “Some of the larger clubs have full meals ready for purchase. That allows them to keep money that might otherwise go to airport concessionaires,” notes Harteveldt. In the past, US airlines traditionally looked at lounges as cost centres, he observes. “Now the airlines sell memberships and day passes and see their lounges as profit centres,” he says. But “you can just tell that US carriers continue to focus on cost containment rather than customer service.”
Harteveldt warns that airlines have to ask themselves the following question: are lounges profit centres or are they a privilege that’s part of a ticket bought by their best customers? The question gets more interesting when you put airline alliances into the mix.
“US airlines are more mercenary and commercial in their approach to lounges, while flag carriers reserve their lounges for those who paid for first or business-class tickets or are premium members,” says Harteveldt.
Looking ahead, Harteveldt sees a trend emerging whereby some travellers with status and travelling on a qualifying ticket will use alliance partner lounges rather than a specific airline’s facility.
“For example, some people travelling on American or United will use Oneworld or Star Alliance lounges that are available rather than use a US lounge,” he explains. “By doing this, you can better control the experience for customers and be more cost efficient.”
Harteveldt notes that at London Heathrow, there are lounges in Terminal 1 for Star Alliance carriers and Terminal 4 for SkyTeam carriers. “And in other airports, I see airlines consolidating and sharing lounges,” he says. “American and Japan Airlines just announced they will combine lounges at Honolulu International Airport, while in Seattle, Delta’s Sky Club also serves travellers travelling on other SkyTeam alliance carriers.”
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
Lounges have also evolved over the past 10 years with the advent of laptops and Wi-Fi. “Travellers used to go to them in order to relax and have a drink. Now they are places – especially for business travellers – for trying to be productive,” says Harteveldt. “You can do things like hold conference calls or send email. You have to give airlines credit for adding things like electric [power outlets] to help with this. It is not inexpensive to do, and it has been noticed.”
Future competition for airline lounges will come from the airports themselves, many of which are investing to make public areas more accommodating, with better seating, better food and beverage, work carrels and Wi-Fi, says Harteveldt.
“Airports are saying, ‘you don’t have to go behind frosted glass doors to have a good airport experience,’” he says. “Look at San Francisco International Airport’s new Terminal 2 – it’s heaven on earth, with Italian-designed seating, organic food for sale and top-end retailers like Kiehl’s.”
Airports realise that they’ve got a great captive audience and they are competing with their airline tenants, adds Harteveldt.