Is Airport Lounge Crowding A Victory For The Masses?

Airport terminals have been getting better. Arguably what were once the two worst terminals in the country – Tom Bradley International at LAX and New York LaGuardia’s Central Terminal – have been completely redone and both are gorgeous.

Food in airports isn’t great, because of the constraints of bringing ingredients in through security and limited storage space as well as cooking constraints and the need to please the median taste of passengers very quickly. But it’s certainly better than it once was, too.

And airports are trying to provide more seating, and meet the needs of passengers to power their devices. At least airports besides Charlotte are trying to do this.

So there’s less need for an airport lounge than ever, and lounges themselves are a degraded experience. Just look at the lines to get into Delta Sky Clubs.

It sure looks like things are an improvement for the masses! And a big L for elites!


  • Airport lounges in the U.S. are actually much better than they were a decade ago. They are better-designed. New and expanded lounges are larger, accommodating more guests. They offer better food. Twenty years ago United Red Carpet Clubs had mostly just Tillamook packaged cheeses and crackers. Now even American’s clubs have been forced by competition to move beyond their snack towers of sadness and offer hot food. Centurion lounges have upped the food and beverage game in lounges, and Delta and Capital One have met (and in CapOne’s case exceeded) that challenge.

    American Airlines, Washington National Airport

  • More people have access to airport lounges than ever, making lounges at most a ‘mass elite’ product rather than an elite one. While Amex Platinum may seem prestigious approvals are surprisingly easy based on reader reports, and those include access to Delta lounges when flying Delta as well as Centurion lounges (and Priority Pass-accessible lounges). Chase’s Sapphire Reserve took Priority Pass to a new level. Citi’s Executive card, by maxing out no annual fee authorized users, makes it possible to bring as many as 36 people into an American Airlines Admirals Club per paid card account.

And lounges aren’t just a place to wait and eat. Airline lounges are a place to get itinerary assistance during irregular operations, so even if you decide to spend your time in the terminal waiting for your flight this is the place to go when your flight is severely delayed or cancelled. Telephone wait times can be really challenging for airline reservations. And when numerous flights cancel or delay at once customer service lines can snake around the terminal. Things are much better inside the lounge usually.

It’s a good time to be a mass elite, really, but being a mass elite isn’t the same thing as being elite. Airlines may have protocol lounges for celebrities and dignitaries in certain airports, and of course at the same airport there’s often one more FBOs.

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. Airline Lounges are bad because a) membership is oversubscribed b) there is a lack of investment in lounge quality of food and beverage c) lounges are being retrofitted into existing spaces at US airports where space is already a premium d) airlines have too many elites and status is given away as goodwill to military members. This sounds great on paper until you try and use a lounge be any large base e) Lastly Airlines and Credit Card companies don’t care how poor the lounges are until people start canceling high end credit cards

  2. Yes, anyone who yearns for exclusive airport/airline experiences is basically a simp for the upper class bourgeois and should admit that

  3. I don’t let the mess of Sky Clubs and their dozens of access methods change the opinion of lounges. With more competition coming online, I believe the best days for lounges are ahead. Amex continues to invest and expand their product, SFO is finally right sized, and capital one and chase have compelling offerings on the way.

    Airport terminal investment is happening nationwide, but it’s at a much slower pace than lounge investment. ORD is making progress but likely a decade away from completion.

    Let’s say all terminals were improved and demand drops for lounges. Thousands of passengers who would be in the terminal who would have otherwise diverted to the lounge. This, I think, would cause a terminal crowding issue as air travel continues to grow, thus making the lounge once again a place of peace and quiet, and demand for both would return to some type of equilibrium. However, power availability, and nice aesthetic in a terminal will not replace a lounge.

  4. I’m spending more time in lounges because I’m getting to the airport earlier and having longer connections due to all the lines and luggage issues beginning last summer. I don’t think I’m the only one. And they are still better than the terminal.

  5. Are lounges still going to be places “to get itinerary assistance during irregular operations”? The new United Club at ORD directs people to an online reservation agent. This type of thing seems to move away from lounges providing extra help.

  6. Maybe if LAX and JFK actually provided some decent pre-check in seating, it would help.

    As it is, we end up flying in to both early because we can no longer count on AA or Delta not to delay flights and our international flights all leave late evening.

    We end up sitting on the ground because neither provides any decent seating and our check in often is hours away

    Once we get thru, we generally have from okay to great (Emirates) lounges but the pre-check in horrendous. Emirates has a great JFK lounge but less than impressed with Singapore Air lounges in either place but especially at JFK.

  7. The lounges were only useful because of their commodes, which actually were cleaned more than once a week

  8. It’s quite simple… You wanna reduce over crowding in lounges with keeping all the elite status and credit card folks there….. Go back to basics. Lounges used to have standards….look at people the next time your in a lounge…. They dress like bums…. Shorts, flip flops, spandex, sweat pants, ball caps, t shirts…… I get it… Pepe wanna be comfortable flying… But a lounge used to have standards as well as dress codes… Many of which still exist… Start enforcing them and guaranteed there will be less people and a much classier environment

  9. Charlotte added the E concourse in 2018 with tons of seating and plugs – great place to stretch out. They also upgraded the D concourse with plugs everywhere, and many of the AA gates now have power at seat.

    So while the AA concourses are crowded there are a lot more power outlets than even a few years ago, and lots of seats and great space for those who walk.

  10. Lounges are usually terrible. It’s a false sense of luxury that isn’t actually luxurious– and they were that way we’ll before they became overcrowded. I will never understand why anyone would want that nasty buffet food. Lounge sushi? I’d rather eat packaged oatmeal.

    Give me an empty, unused gate and a cheese box from Starbucks and I’ll be just fine, i don’t need to crowd in with the strollers and the buffet sushi.

  11. I realized a big contributor to the issue, particularly at JFK, is the reduced flight frequency leading to longer layovers. I spent 4 hours and 2 hours on a trip recently when I used to spend just 30 minutes to an hour. I heard a couple checking in who were going to be there 7 hours!

  12. The worst are Delta’s Sky Clubs, that’s certainly not worth the wait in line no matter how you spin it!!!

  13. The paradox is that the food/drink is better *outside* of the lounges. If I was truly wealthy, I would go to Petrossian Bar if at TBIT, and not care about how expensive it is.

    People go to airport lounges specifically because they *are* cost conscious. Free bottom shelf wine is fine as long as it’s free.

    Airport lounges aren’t for captains of industry, as they lead you to believe, they’re for the upper-middle class. And despite what the media would lead you to believe, the upper middle class is doing fine and GROWING.

    There’s multiple fallacies being pushed at the same time, which is why the situation is confusing.

  14. I only fly United so I only use United and Priority Pass lounges, but other than some legacy Continental outstation lounges like MSP where the food offerings are limited by lack of kitchen, I don’t encounter lines to get in and while the lounges can be busy I always find a seat and they have a good selection of fresh food with some hot and protein options. Priority pass lounges and centurion lounges usually have slightly better food and wine options but aren’t (except MSP) usually conveniently located to United terminals.

    Is this just a Delta Skyclub problem?

  15. I’ve largely given up on Centurion Lounges. Even though they are very nice with good food and drink, the crowding and noise in there is no better than the terminal where there is at least more interesting things to see. With the upcoming no-guest policy that might change so we’ll see. That whole check in on your phone crap is a massive turn off so really as nice as they are, I just don’t see the current Centurion offerings to be competitive at all due to the crowds and phone check in crap.

    There’s more people in lounges as people are forced to get to the airport 4 hours before a flight and schedule LONG layovers due to constant delays. A 1 hour connection these days is not enough. At this point I won’t even consider a connection unless it’s at least 3-4 hours minimum. Been burned too many times. As such I’m looking for a lounge at my connection airport. I think that’s a big part of the issue as well.

  16. I rarely spend enough time in an airport to use one. I guess others do? DFW airport sucks because it is so spread out. Any lounge I want to use is just too far away to make it worth visiting before, or between flights. And that is pretty much the case for most airports. I had two connections on American going from GRI to SGU connecting in DFW and PHX. My wife isn’t able to walk fast, and we were barely able to make our connections before they were boarding. No lounges en route. And food options in PHX were mostly closed except grab and go. So why do a luxury lounge? Do people really enjoy being at the airport for that long?

  17. Where are you seeing airport terminals getting better? There are lots of gates with 20 seats for a 300-passenger flight. Terminals are designed to be shopping malls, not get people onto planes efficiently and ergonomically.
    Dealing with that problem would likely give lounges a little breathing room. I’d be fine sitting at a gate for 40 min instead of 10 min in a lounge after a 10 min line and 20 min of walking to and from. However, if the gate is standing room only, I’ll go snag a free coffee, clean bathroom, and quiet moment.
    It’s also worth looking overseas, where many Priority Pass lounges are less luxurious but more utilitarian. I’ll take a pleasant, calm place for 100 people over a plush one for 70. They’re also more likely to have spaces like a kids’ play area, and working those wiggles out pre-flight improves everyone’s experience.

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