Is Priority Pass Destroying the Benefit of Airport Lounge Access?

There’s an axiom on the internet that the answer to any question in an article title is always “no.”
And that’s just the case here. The Wall Street Journal thinks otherwise but fails to make the case, though there’s certainly more crowding in some lounges that’s difficult to manage.

The case the Journal makes is that the rise of Priority Pass cards distributed with credit cards, especially Chase, have led to a decline in quality of airport lounges. That’s false. The other major claim is they’ve made lounges more crowded, and that’s true with some lounges.

On the whole airport lounges in the U.S. are better than they used to be, not worse. American, Delta, and United are all investing more in their lounges, foreign airlines are opening lounges, and American Express has entered the lounge game over the last several years.

The idea that “gourmet meals once on offer are now finger foods” isn’t accurate. The big spurt in Priority Pass cards came two years ago. Airline clubs haven’t offered gourmet meals in the past 20 years, and Priority Pass isn’t getting you into United, Delta, or American clubs any longer in any case.

Instead in the U.S. it means Alaska lounges, The Club lounges, Air France KLM and Korean lounges, Minute Suites and some others — not known for having offered gourmet meals previously.

The Turkish lounge at Washington Dulles is lovely, didn’t exist years ago, and does get crowded with Priority Pass guests (and United Golds flying domestically).

Priority Pass is getting you $28 credits in several airport restaurants and no doubt those restaurants are more crowded than they would otherwise be as a result.

The Journal suggests that Priority Pass adds restaurants in order to draw people out of lounges and reduce crowding. That’s absurd. Priority Pass adds restaurants where they do not have lounges to offer.

The only Priority Pass lounge actually specifically called out (and not by name) is the mediocre The Club at DFW for having a wait list to get in. They call out one story at an American Express Centurion Lounge, not accessible via Priority Pass of course,

Bill McGuinness, a 57-year-old real-estate developer, was at a Centurion Lounge, which is open to certain American Express cardholders, in Seattle in April when a woman placed her toddler on a bar table. She stripped him down to his diapers and changed him into his pajamas. Mr. McGuinness said the woman then ordered a cocktail and talked on her phone while her son was “running laps” around the lounge for the next hour.

There’s also some discussion of bad behavior in one of a few possible Priority Pass-accessible lounges in Boston where someone drank 3 glasses of cheap whiskey and “ran to the snack bar and stuffed five granola bars into his jacket.” Of course that happens even in the British Airways Galleries First lounge at London Heathrow:

I’ve written about one reader who brought 35 people into a lounge on a single Priority Pass card and another who brought in 19 guests, the former in Africa and the latter in South America.

To be sure there are lounges that take in too many guests, rather than turning people away when they’re full. And turning people away isn’t good either. Alaska Airlines had a real challenge with everyone eligible to enter, at least before they added two more lounges in Seattle (and even then they can fill up). It’s difficult to get space in airports. That space is expensive. And airports are hard to work with.

The bottom line is more people have lounge access before. There are more and better lounges than before, too. Those who got access before resent that more people do today. And the better the lounge, the more people want to spend time there. That’s why the United Polaris lounge at Chicago and Amex lounges get so crowded. And the more democratic travel becomes, the more all kinds — with all sorts of values and culture norms — come together. That means there’s going to be behavior of some guests to criticize, just as passengers behave badly in the air.

Provide decent food especially and people will come to the airport early. It’s a problem, but it’s a good problem to have.

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. Right on. This was a dumb article that used one or two anecdotal data points and then added some entirely made up content (the “gourmet meals” that have never been available in US lounges in my lifetime)

  2. Chalk up the bad behavior reports to “people being people”. This behavior is not exclusive to airline lounges. I see it all the time at “Any Restaurant Main Street USA”.

  3. Made a u-turn at Turkish lounge at IAD last Friday. The line to get in stretched down the hall like boarding an A380. Probably 75 people waiting. Of course we were turned away, albeit politely, from AF lounge first.
    Priority Pass is worth exactly what we (kinda) pay for it.

  4. The “solution” is to significantly improve airport terminals, with ample seating, plenty of electrical outlets, interesting food and bar outlets. LGA’s Delta terminals and SFO Terminal 2 are great examples.

  5. I’d have to think a lot of the independent lounges that are part of the priority pass program depend on the revenue from PP to stay open. I flew back from PVR a few weeks ago and the 3 couples in front of me all accessed the lounge via PP. It has some edible food and an okay drink selection, but if I didn’t have PP there’s no way I would have spent the cash to visit. $27, or what ever they were charging, just wasn’t worth it. I think that’s the case for a lot of lounges. Not only do i think the independent lounges need the revenue, but I think PP also needs the bank revenues to stay viable.

  6. I find this interesting because the limited priority club lounges in the US compared to other countries is so very limited. Lounges have become like elite status. When everyone is in the lounge it loses some luster for sure.

  7. I don’t mind people accessing benefits they’ve paid for. I do mind bad or obnoxious behaviors and lounge operators turning a blind eye to it.

  8. Disappointed in the WSJ to permit journalism by isolated anecdote as opposed to thorough compilation of data.

    They are better than that

  9. We recently flew in main cabin from DFW to LHR continuing in Business class to BCN on BA. The jewel here is the B-class ticket on BA allowed access to the four One World airline clubs at LHR, a perfect way to use 5-hours between flights. We visited all four and the Cathay club was fantastic

  10. The WSJ article is obviously wrong on several fronts, but I do think many of the Priority Pass lounges in the US have become overcrowded to the point of not being useful, due to all of the people that now have access from credit cards. Most of the time I don’t even bother trying to go to the lounge now when I’m in the US. I’ve come to prefer the restaurant credit.

    Where I find the value in PP is for international lounges, especially in some developing countries where the terminal can be overcrowded and/or lacking in amenities.

  11. Good points. But “Priority Pass adds restaurants where they do not have lounges to offer” isn’t totally true. The Alaska Lounge at PDX was the only PP option there, and was probably the hardest lounge in the PP network to get into. PP has since added Capers and the distillery at PDX. PDX was already about my favorite connection point, and that pushed it way over the top.

  12. Was turned away at SJC lounge. They have a policy when British Air is in, they limit the Priority Pass members. The lounge was pretty empty, but they had the 25 person PP members.

  13. Maybe US airports shouldn’t be so crappy that people resort to using lounges as escapes. Why are some US airports limit WiFi access to only 30 minutes? That’s useless since most people have more than an hour layover.

    I went to Singapore, Hong Kong, Incheon and Narita in the past, I prefer to explore those airports as it provides a lot of options. I generally would use the lounge for a shower and then grab a quick bite.

  14. 99% correct. However the quality of domestic lounges for legacy carriers has probably fallen if you go back 20-25 years. They have only gotten getter in the past few years after scraping themselves off the floor.
    I am surprised that you also did not point out that within the USA the PP network has shrunk over the past 2 decades. Used to include UA, US, CO, AA and DL lounges at non-hubs – now 0/5. This would account for much of the overcrowding at the few remaining lounges. Not to mention that AS lounges now have to absorb VX customers.

  15. As a retired journalist, I’m surprised the WSJ was so demonstrably sloppy with this article.
    I know for a fact that, as Gary said, Priority Pass only gives restaurant access when there’s no club available in a terminal.
    There’s way too much supposition on their part. Where were the WSJ editors on this?

  16. Agree with John…the US airports are the real issue. So many more people traveling these days and most of them can’t accommodate the number of people they are pushing through on flights with lounge, restaurant and terminal space combined. Some of the terminals in NYC are just astonishingly bad. Econ prices are lower than ever so I guess this is the trade off but you would think the airlines would want to treat premium passengers better.

    I wouldn’t pay for card with PP as the only benefit but it has come in handy in some other countries. I never expect to be able to or even want to use it in the US…which is a shame. I love the Centurion Lounges and hope they will open more.

  17. The flip side is that PP is becoming worth less. It’s super annoying to hoof it over from the United gates at IAD to the Turkish lounge only to be told they’re not taking PP members.

  18. It is definitely out of control in the US. We were denied access to Alaska’s lounge this morning at LAX. Flying on a “U” first class “international” flight, also a 75K Alaska Elite, it didn’t matter at all – DENIED access once again. It’s easier to get upgraded to first class than being admitted to the Alaska LAX lounge.

  19. “Airline clubs haven’t offered gourmet meals in the past 20 years.”

    Surely you mean “in the US,” right? It’s a big world out there, and I can vouch for lounge food (especially in Europe, and even in the Middle East lately) getting noticeably worse in this period of time. The fact that it has always been crap in US airline lounges doesn’t mean this is the case elsewhere.

    Of course, correlation does not equal causation, so I’m not blaming the proliferation of complimentary PP cards for this.

  20. Not mentioned in the article but the Admiral’s Clubs can get completely over-crowded also. It is not uncommon for the small one in the second “A” section at PHX to not have seats available. The same thing happens in AUS when there is a BA flight close to departure. At that point it is better to sit in the waiting area at the gate.

    I don’t blame people with AA credit cards but American should try to balance supply and demand.

  21. Anecdotally I think the Alaska situation has gotten worse in the last couple of years, even with the two new lounges in SEA. I flew a ton for work in 2015, mostly SEA-LAX, and never was denied entry into Alaska lounges at either end (though I more frequently used the Amex lounge in SEA). Since then I’ve been denied with PP at SEA, and seen more reports of that from others.

    At least at SEA there are the Club at SEA lounges, if you are desperate or need a walk (or are flying not-AS), plus Amex and the SkyClubs for the DL crowd.

    “The Turkish lounge at Washington Dulles is lovely”

    YES! Walked right in there the other day, on PP, for a late lunch after a transcon. Guess it wasn’t a peak time.

  22. ‘[A]t a Centurion Lounge, which is open to certain American Express cardholders, in Seattle in April when a woman placed her toddler on a bar table. She stripped him down to his diapers and changed him into his pajamas. Mr. McGuinness said the woman then ordered a cocktail and talked on her phone while her son was “running laps” around the lounge for the next hour.‘

    This is more a function of being in Seattle… I lived there for eleven years and never ceased to be amazed what Seattleites (especially those with dogs or young kids) considered appropriate behavior in public. Bill is just lucky she only changed the kid’s clothes on the bar table and not its poopy diaper.

  23. Priority Pass should list on the app whether a particular lounge is “full.” This would ensure: 1) Members to not waste time traveling across the terminal to a lounge that they can’t enter (maybe another one is available, or the time could simply be spent elsewhere), and 2) Priority Pass could see whether the lounges are really being truthful about their capacity–so many reports of totally empty lounges with the sign outside saying Priority Pass members are not being allowed in…some reports say that when people walk in to ask to use the bathroom, they’re let in and see it’s empty. Perhaps the staff just doesn’t want to work as hard so they put up the sign? This way Priority Pass could see when a lounge restricts access with a sign and whether that really corresponds to actual or anticipated volumes, or it’s simply the employees throttling admissions to make their shift easier.

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