Do you love airport lounges? Airlines are stepping it up for you. | Cruising Altitude

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Delta Air Lines opened the newest lounge in its network last month, the Delta One Lounge at JFK in New York. It’s a departure from the airline’s existing Sky Clubs. It caters only to premium cabin passengers and has much stricter access requirements than the airline’s other lounges – sorry, American Express Platinum cardholders.

While I don’t always think a lounge visit is the best use of a traveler’s time, I’ll also freely admit that if I wind up getting to the airport early and have lounge access at my disposal, I’ll usually go anyway.

Experts and executives across the airline industry say lounge offerings have become increasingly important to many travelers in the past decade or two, and airlines have to work harder both to stand out and meet travelers' ever-evolving expectations.

“We are focusing on the hospitality, on the genuine care of our people, on the service they provide, and the culture we have created in the lounge,” Claude Roussel, Delta’s vice president of Sky Clubs and lounge experience told me. “The culture of service, the culture of ensuring every guest is taken care of.”

In some ways, the evolution of airline lounges mirrors the evolution of airplane cabins, with premium offerings becoming more ostentatious in some ways but also more accessible to the average traveler in others. Achievable luxury and tiered, differentiated products for different price points seem to be the driving philosophy at most major carriers both in the air and on the ground these days.

The terrace at the new Delta One Lounge.
The terrace at the new Delta One Lounge.

A brief history of airport lounges

According to Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research, a travel industry analytics firm, American Airlines opened the first airport lounge in the U.S. in the late 1930s at LaGuardia Airport in New York. But there was little innovation or access in the first decades, even as other airlines followed American’s model.

“These lounges were pleasant but almost utilitarian by today's standards,” he said. “Until 1972, airport lounges were restricted to travelers who were flying in the premium cabin, or, in the U.S., they were invitation-only.”

Harteveldt said some basic food and beverage offerings were standard in most lounges, and in the early days of widespread internet use, they were often among the first places in airports to get Wi-Fi.

For nearly 60 years, however, lounges have been more like midmarket hotel lobbies than the luxurious escapes they have become more recently.

“Let’s fast-forward to the 1990s, and that’s when you really start to see airlines invest in the lounge experience. … Virgin (Atlantic Airways) basically said: Why should a lounge be stuffy and boring?” Harteveldt said. “Virgin had a craft cocktail program, they had a full buffet, they had spas. At the London Heathrow Clubhouse, I think there was initially a putting green and games.”

And with that, the explosion of lounge attractions began. Delta led the charge in revitalizing U.S. airport lounges, according to Harteveldt.

Airlines continue to diversify their lounge options, but not everyone can get in.
Airlines continue to diversify their lounge options, but not everyone can get in.

Roussel from Delta said it started with a simple directive from his boss about 10 years ago.

“Make Sky Club a reason to fly Delta,” he said he was told shortly after he joined the company. So Roussel and his team went on a mission to make lounges a more valued part of travelers’ experiences by improving the furnishings, food and beverage offerings and more.

“In my opinion, the Delta Sky Clubs played an enormous role in helping evolve its position from that of an airline to more of a lifestyle brand,” Harteveldt said.

Last week's Cruising Altitude: Don't fly a lot? You should still get a loyalty account. Here's why.

Why airlines care about their lounges

Many travelers just really, really want to go to the lounge before, between, or after their flights, and it’s a competitive disadvantage not to give them what they want.

According to data from Atmosphere Research Group’s 2024 first-quarter U.S. travel online study, 43% of business travelers and 37% of leisure travelers said lounge access was important to them, and about half of all travelers said they choose itineraries based on their ability to access an airline’s lounge.

“It’s a competitive necessity,” Harteveldt said. “When your competitors have something and you don’t, and it’s something that’s seen as meaningful to the traveler, you’re seen as deficient.”

As more people are able to access lounges, either through credit card partnerships or expanded premium cabins, airlines have had to stratify their offerings.

United introduced Polaris Lounges in 2016 for premium cabin passengers only, in addition to its Clubs, and American rolled out Flagship Lounges in 2017 in addition to its Admirals Clubs.

Delta was a little late to the game with the Delta One Lounge, which caters to only premium cabin passengers.

“When you’re in a Sky Club in one of our hubs, you basically, we mix customers who pay $10,000 for tickets with someone who pays $500 or $600 for a ticket,” Roussel said.

So a dedicated premium lounge functions much like the curtain between business class and premium economy on a long-haul flight. The big spenders don’t always want to deal with crowds and prefer a more exclusive space.

Airlines have also been under pressure recently as their lounges have become more crowded, and some have had long lines to get in at peak travel times. Roussel said the new Delta One Lounge has already helped alleviate some of those problems at JFK since it opened.

British Airways is also overhauling its global lounge network to address its passengers' changing demands and demographics.

“People’s travel has changed, we get to the airport earlier post-pandemic, more people flying for leisure, people want more, that means we need to adapt what we offer to meet our customers’ needs,” Calum Laming, British Airways’ chief customer officer, told me at an event the airline hosted in New York this spring to preview updates to various parts of its business.

Laming said the airline wants to blend its British identity with local flavor in the destinations it serves to help give premium customers what they want wherever they go.

Plus, he said, “Britain is about bars. Expect a great bar” at every location as the new clubs open and old ones are revamped.

How you can get lounge access

For those who travel only once or twice a year, a lounge membership may not be worth it. But if your trip includes a long layover, day passes could be worth considering. More frequent airport visitors need to decide for themselves if the perks of the lounges available to them are worth the cost.

Airlines increasingly reserve their most exclusive lounges, like the new Delta One Lounge, only for customers traveling in long-haul premium cabins or their most elite, invitation-only frequent flyers. (A throwback to a bygone era of lounge access, perhaps?)

But that doesn’t mean all lounges are off-limits to the budget-conscious traveler.

Many airline-branded credit cards include access to the affiliated carrier’s lower-tier lounges. In addition, premium travel cards like the Chase Sapphire and Amex Platinum come with Priority Pass membership, which unlocks a network of lounges from different airlines as well as unaffiliated lounges in many airports.

But as with most things in air travel: The more you pay, the more you get.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What to know about the newest airport lounges | Cruising Altitude

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