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The Airport Lounge Crisis

September 24, 2018

MAYBE MY EXPECTATIONS have been out of whack, but I’ve always thought the airport lounge was supposed to be an exclusive sort of place. A place of luxury and comfort, where premium class passengers could escape the noise and bustle of the terminal. In my younger days, before I could afford to travel in first or business, I’d walk past those smoked-glass doorways and think, wow, it must be pretty luxe in there. I mean, wasn’t that the point?

Well, as anyone who travels regularly and hangs out in these lounges will attest, this is increasingly not the case.

The main issue is overcrowding. Lounges are often so jam-packed that customers are forced to stand. I’ve seen lines going literally out the door. Noise levels, meanwhile, are off the charts, often because the property is overloaded with screaming babies and toddlers.

At the Emirates lounge in Bangkok a few months ago, I watched a family of four literally tear the place to shreds: bare feet on the furniture, cups and plates on the floor, kids screaming and throwing chips at each other. When they finally got up to leave, it looked like a cyclone had blown through.

And here comes the waitstaff with their carts. They’re flinging dishes into the bin, rapid-fire, and it’s BANG, CLANG, SMASH, BANG, SMASH, CLANG.

What was intended to be a place of comfort and relaxation has become a cross between a daycare center and a cafeteria.

The photo below was taken a few months ago at the Aspire lounge (shared by multiple carriers) at Amsterdam-Schiphol. Every seat was occupied and the morning sun was blasting through the unshaded windows, heating the room like a sauna. At least a dozen babies could be counted, half of whom were crying or shrieking at any given time, while a group of rambunctious toddlers ran amok, throwing themselves over the furniture.

Aside from the free food, what exactly was the advantage of being there versus any random spot in the terminal?

Silly me. I remember the first time I stepped into the Cathay Pacific business lounge in Hong Kong, and how, not knowing better, I was literally nervous. I had this idea that I was underdressed — that everyone inside would look like James Bond, and that I’d be seen as an interloper and asked to leave. Instead, here was a room overflowing with the same people you’d see in any shopping mall, most of them younger than me, in cargo shorts and ball caps, wolfing down beer and noodles.

Speaking of dress code… I’m at the Wingtips lounge at Kennedy Airport not long ago (this is another of those shared lounges, which tend to be a little worse than the airline-specific ones). There’s a guy, he’s maybe 30, sitting across from me, music screaming around his headphones. And then I notice his t-shirt, which is black and emblazoned with two simple words in large block letters. It says… well, here’s a picture of it:

If that’s not an indicator of just how far air travel — even premium class air travel — has fallen, I don’t know what is.

This is by no means across the board, of course. It’s hit or miss, depending on the airport, the airline, and the time of day. The trend, though, isn’t a good one. There are a lot more loud, dirty, and overcrowded lounges these days than peaceful or luxurious ones.

The cause is twofold. For one, there are more people flying than ever before, in all classes, and with whatever mileage or frequent flyer status gets you in. On top of that, a growing number of passengers are using third-party perks to gain entry. Having an American Express platinum card, for example. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m as guilty of this as anybody, my Platinum AmEx and Priority Pass benefits getting me in to the same lounge I’m apt to complain about.)

Airlines have little choice beyond tightening up their entry qualifications or building bigger lounges. The latter is difficult, if often impossible, for obvious reasons. The former risks alienating a large number of customers.

If I ran an airline, I’d have a few rules:

1. Lounge access is for first and business class passengers only. No third-party (Amex, etc.) entry unless capacity is below 75 percent.
2. One guest per passenger.
3. No guests for third-party customers.
4. No children under four years-old. Period, no exceptions.

My lounge awards…

BEST: The Emirates first class lounge in Dubai. The private boarding bridges, the gourmet food, sumptuous surroundings and complimentary massage. I mean, what’s not to like and where do you start? And no, your Amex ain’t getting you in here.

MOST DISAPPOINTING: The Turkish Airlines business class lounge at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. I’d heard so many fantastic things about this place — a multi-level complex with its own putting green. What I found was filth: dirty, sticky tables, with litter all over the place and the most unfriendly staff I’ve ever encountered. It wasn’t especially crowded at 5 a.m, but it was hard to find a seat or table that wasn’t covered in garbage or spilled food. Ataturk is closing this fall as Istanbul unveils a huge new airport. Presumably Turkish will offer better digs there.

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