Delta Clamped Down On Airline Lounge Access, But It Doesn’t Stop Long Lines

Delta Air Lines has a problem with long lines at its Sky Clubs. This isn’t something experienced in the same way by passengers of American Airlines or United. Sure, Delta lounges offer better food and passengers will line up for food they don’t pay extra for in the moment. But that’s not the cause of the lines.

While United and American pitch premium credit cards with lounge access, Delta has a line problem because more people have access to their cards as a result of credit card access than competitors.

  • Delta offers their premium America Express reserve card with lounge access, just like United has its Club card and American has its Executive card.

  • But Delta lounges are also available to anyone with an American Express Platinum card who is flying the airline.

Delta’s biggest customer is American Express, generating over $5 billion a year from the financial services giant. Their contract with American Express runs through 2029. And lounge access sells credit cards.

As a result, the airline isn’t in a position to do anything about the true cause of crowding. And crowding tends to be worst in major markets with the greatest concentration of premium American Express cardholders… like New York.

Delta Air Lines did everything except address the root cause of lounge crowding. They restricted memberships (access via means other than credit card) to elite members. They raised the price of membership and stopped allowing members to enter when traveling on basic economy fares. They stopped letting elites into lounges when flying economy internationally. And after asking employees to volunteer to clean lounges, and pitching getting their credit card as a way to use the lounge when traveling as a nonrev, they began blocking employees from using the lounges when on staff travel.

These moves matter and in some ways are draconian. But as long as American Express keeps putting more Platinum cards in consumer hands, and keeps signing up new Delta Reserve cardmembers, lounges will be crowded. They build new lounges, larger lounges, but that just encourages people who would have stayed away due to the lines to line up. As I’ve written about Centurion lounges – and American Express has even built more of those near Delta gates to help relieve Sky Club crowding – the old Yogi Berra line applies that they’re so busy nobody goes there anymore.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Drives me crazy when people post pictures of the “line” at Laguardia at 5 AM. That isn’t a line to get in…that is a we-haven’t-opened-yet line.

    Not to say that the lines haven’t been a problem at JFK, LGA, ATL B (there ARE 8 other lounges folks!). But, please stop showing me lines of a lounge that hasn’t opened yet.

    And, yes we all know that it’s not the Reserve Card that is filling the SC’s…it’s the Amex Plat. I still think in an airport where there is a Centurion the rule should be Plats free at the Centurion and $39.00 at the SC (and vice-versa).

  2. In terms of Delta Reserve vs Amex Platinum

    1) There are more Delta Reserve cardholders than you think. Delta aggressively promotes this card – far more than I see the United Club or Citi Executive crd promoted.

    2) If you cut Amex Platinum access, people will just sign up for Delta Reserve IMO. Delta Reserve is an easy card to justify given the companion pass.

    3) The solution is more clubs, larger clubs, and enhanced terminals. At LGA, they recently reopened one of the old clubs, and the big club is still due for an expansion. Delta should perhaps double club capacity across its system.

  3. I still don’t get the appeal of ‘lounges’. If you qualify for them, then you probably can easily afford to eat at one of the multiple of restaurants/bars and just pay for it. Isn’t people’s time worth money? And at least for the AA lounges, it’s not like the drinks are free- you still have to pay to get anything decent.

  4. @Anthony: Funny thing is that reopened club at LGA is closer to a lot of the gates than most people realize.

    I don’t have anything remotely scientific to back up my claim (although Delta knows for sure)…it’s just that 80% of the folks I ever speak to or overhear talking in the SC seem to be on the Plat.

    Especially – and I’m really not being an ageist here – the younger 20-somethings most of whom seem to be in the lounge as an AU on a parents card.

  5. Standing in line is a waste of time. A lounge becomes less appealing the longer the line is. I’ve always thought that lounges should be reserved for the most frequent flyers, business & first class. It’s a simple remedy.

  6. the SkyClubs are now Amex Platinum lounges, and they occasionally let in elite Delta passengers. I was a long-time 360 member and have largely moved $100K of spend to AA — for many reasons stemming from DL’s performance and its overall abandonment of the premium business segment, with the lounge being one key example. I obviously recognize DL makes tons of $$$ from Amex and runs the math, but they will continue to lose premium business travelers over time.

  7. I know this is your hobby-horse, but at 5am it is obviously not a line due to crowding inside? If you want to post another picture of the perpetual afternoon line at JFK T4B, go ahead, but this ain’t it.

  8. @TravelWarr

    I have personally experienced lines at the following stations:

    ATL (and was told ALL SCs in the airport had lines at that time)

    This is a systemic issue with DL and AMEX handing out cards that provide SC access like hotcakes. It is what it is, but it degrades the notion of a luxury experience.

  9. @T – as long as there is the DL/Amex agreement (through 2029 as Gary wrote) entry won’t be restricted for Amex Platinum or Delta Amex Reserve card holders so expecting that to change is a waste of time.

    To your point, there are plenty of lounges that are restricted to business class, and some that only first class can get in, along with, in many cases, the highest level of the airline’s FF program. However, that isn’t the case with base AA/DL/UA lounges (Flagship and Polaris are more restricted) or base PP lounges. Accept the situation or you will continue to be frustrated.

  10. @ SOBE ER DOC:

    Thus far my isn’t as long. I’ve only seen lines at ATL B, JFK, and LGA and mostly in the afternoon or early morning. JFK gets bad in the late afternoon when the folks for the transatlantic European flights start arriving. I think the new club there will help with that a bit.

    However, in airports with multiple clubs, the app will show which clubs are busy (or not) and that is a help.

  11. “Delta Air Lines did everything except address the root cause of lounge crowding.” Some potential cost-saving solutions to help reduce Delta Sky Club® and AMEX Centurion® Lounge overcrowding are to bring back their crappier COVID pandemic plastic-wrapped food menu, including kiddie comfort food like chicken nuggets, install more out-of-service coffee dispensers, offer a selection of complimentary gourmet dog foods encouraging travelers with service animals to relax in style, install more out-of-service coffee dispensers, and increase their credit card annual fee by $100.

  12. I think another factor is that post-pandemic, and given occasional disruptions, people are not cutting things too close, arriving at the airport earlier and tolerating longer connections, so spending more time in the lounges.

    And I’d still rather spend time in a lounge than the terminal. Restaurants and bars are just as crowded (not to mention slow to serve you), and often lack power outlets and comfortable chairs.

  13. The real question is is Delta willing to do anything when the AMEX contract comes up for renewal.

  14. Contract AA to operate the SkyClubs and you will see the lines and overcrowding instantly disappear.

  15. Daniel – why would they? I would argue that an accessible, quality club experience (meaning that essentially all customers can access the lounge on any Delta flight provided you get a credit card) is a key differentiator of the Delta brand.

    All these people who complain about cardholders getting access to lounges seem to forget that these cardholders are also buying airline tickets.

  16. @ Gary — When we went to ATL E SkyClub last week, there was a long line. After being let inside, we discovered that about 40% of the seats were empty. It seemed that DL was doing this on purpose, to make the club look busy, like a nigtclub would do.

  17. Both DL and Amex continue to aggressively market their cards citing lounge access as one of the main benefits, despite the fact that they cannot fulfill the promise of lounge access for all of these cards. It’s the $$$$ that drives this. Am i the only one who thinks this is a bit immoral (or possibly illegal) – to sell a product promising something that you can’t produce?

  18. Don:

    Cell phone companies sell “unlimited 5G” knowing the network will be fully congested, to the level it takes 5 minutes to send a text-only iMessage, during busy times and/or busy places, even if you are on the most highly prioritized business elite plan.

    FedEx sold overnight shipping during the pandemic knowing their cargo planes were full and couldn’t accept more overnight parcels. No refunds because the pandemic was out of FedEx’s control and exempt from service guarantees.

    Amazon deliveries are now late 10% of the time, up from <1% of the time during its heyday in the early 2010s.

    I am not claiming any of the above are morally right. I am pointing out Delta and Amex are not alone in this behavior. This is commonplace behavior in the world of business and consumer products and marketing.

  19. DL is a mess since the pandemic. I never have this issue with AA clubs, and while we can argue that DL might have slightly better food, I never stand in line, I never don’t have a seat and I get a place to relax before my flight. All of you who L O V E DL might want to start looking around at what the other airlines are doing.

  20. Lounges with open space and great food, first class with dinner and ice cream sundaes, and hotels lounges with full breakfast and evening appetizers are a thing of the past. It is cheaper, less hassle, and less evasive to pay for what you want and avoid frequent stay programs. The original purpose for signing up does not exist either.

  21. As an employee, I just spent $750 to renew my platinum card and I only travel about once a month and have been able to use the club. We were informed that there was an embargo and we can no longer use it. If I had known that I would not have renewed my card.
    I am starting to fly other carriers. After working most my adult life for Delta to have travel benefits – When I retired, you cannot get on a plane standby so you have to buy full fare and I just go on whoever is the cheapest.

  22. And guess what. The lounges are even that good. The food is mediocre at best. The crowding is about the same as in the main terminal and there is no special ambiance at all. No worth it to begin with.

  23. Delta can always further restrict Amex card members from entering by only letting those in business and above cabin to enter with their cards.


  25. Delta proved last year it values it’s American Express cardholders more than its elite status fliers. I know I’m one of them. For nearly reaching diamond last year, I’ll reach gold and spilt my airline money with an airline that I can get into a club and earn status.

  26. When paying for business class for US domestic flights and not being able to enter lounges even with frequent flyer status; makes me wonder why I fly with delta.

    Its literally offering half the product. Good thing I am not based in US.

  27. As the saying goes if everyone has status then no one has status, Delta is selling the lounge idea to EVERYONE they are now having to deal with the consequence of greed, miscalculation & mismanagement.

  28. The system in the rest of the world is fare better — airline lounge is included with business class tickets or higher and nothing more.

    People paying for lounges have access to … paid lounges. Duh!

  29. Too funny! And it’s only getting worse as more Amex Plat hands out more authorized user cards (a result if the new Amex lounge guest policy)

    But don’t pretend DL really cares. They don’t. They still collect billions from Amex. So it’s just window dressing

  30. The solution is simple. American Express should support free restaurant access through Priority Pass like other credit card issuers. This will relieve the pressure on lounges.

  31. @John Luffred 100% agreed, I absolutely do not understand why anyone would pick Delta over American unless they fly out of one of Delta’s fortress hubs. Delta is truly the most overrated airline. AA is the world’s greatest airline in my opinion.

  32. I get the whole ‘cards but access’ thing and outside-looking-in it’s, imho, a clever sales and retention strategy for both the card issuer and the airline but I also feel Delta Elites pain here.

    In the UK pretty much the only serious airline co-branded card is the Amex BA Card and the Premier version of it ( there are others but they don’t really come close so to save time I’ll put them aside). Even with the Premier Card which has a £250 / $310 ( which is VERY high for the UK as typically even our CCs are free or a nominal fee) you don’t get BA Lounge across. You do get a priority pass but BA have a ‘no paid for access’ policy ( outside of occasional and very limited BA Holidays promotions normally requiring high cash spend and only targeted to low numbers) and never allows PP, DP or any other scheme to gain access in their lounges.

    Even having both of the BA Amex cards, same again for my partner then an Amex Plat’ business card I’d be livid if I ever turned up as an elite to be told I couldn’t come in due to CC holders filling the place and I think in BAs case they know that allowing that to ever happen would be dangerous for them. So much so they regularly build in clauses to 3rd party lounges they use that specifically require said lounge to hold back the full number of any J, F or elite pax they have flying that day and without any time restrictions imposed.

    Imho elites are those that have shown commitment and loyalty to an airline & should always be 1st in any queue. My status is 100% earnt & maintained via self funding ( zero company paid travel) and the day I was denied access cos of John Doe who took a card out last week would be the day I never booked BA again.

    That said. Y’all have a ‘weird’ classification/ system for your lounges anyway compared to us. It’s always amused/ bemusede that on a HBO US domestic ticket (.cash or miles) I can access Flagship First locations whereas an AA Elite on a F booking to, say, the Bahamas is told to go to Starbucks

  33. The rationale for being delta elite gets worse and worse:
    1. Delta openly saying they’re trying to sell as many domestic first class seats as possible leaving fewer for elites.
    2. The idea that domestic Y+ is an “upgrade”. It isn’t
    3. Worthless mileage program
    4. Can’t even get into their lounges and delta is YEARS behind aa and United do business class specific lounges and now they’re only building them at two airports

    If you live in Atlanta, I guess you have to use delta but why anyone in a competitive market would choose them is beyond me. Their marketing and perceived value is strong. That’s about it

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