San Francisco Centurion Lounge: Departing Passengers Only, No More Than 3 Hours Before Flight

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In May we learned that the American Express Centurion Lounge in Seattle was limiting passengers to using the lounge when departing on a flight (no arriving passengers) and within two hours of their flight’s departure.

American Express has tried several things to manage overcrowding.

San Francisco Centurion Lounge

That’s not done the trick. The level of demand has also taxed American Express food and beverage budgets for the lounge. My impression is that they more careful with food costs than earlier on in the lounge program to compensate.

American Express told me at the time that the two hours prior to departure limit wasn’t a new policy (“We have always had this policy in effect for all our Centurion Lounge locations when we hit capacity”) although no one seems to have ever encountered it before May.

They also shared that they “only restrict lounge access if we hit capacity” so this isn’t a regular policy at all of their lounges all of the time.

Seattle is a small lounge, and often overcrowded. However the only Centurion lounge that is generally ‘full’ but not ‘overcrowded’ in my experience is Houston. It’s tucked away inside the international terminal, and you take an elevator that’s tucked away inside duty free to get there.

A new sign was spotted in the San Francisco club, a restriction of three hours prior to departure. Notably this policy does not apply to Centurion (Black Card) customers.

Due to high traffic in our lounge at this time, we can only welcome Platinum Card Members who are departing and who enter within 3 hours of their boarding pass departure time. We apologize for any inconvenience.

SFO Centurion Lounge limits to 3 hours before boarding time

My issues with limiting when a guest can enter the lounge in this fashion are three-fold.

  1. They’re imposing the policy without letting cardmembers know in advance. So people are learning about it when they show up at the airport and walk up to the lounge. They’re at the airport early only to have to sit around and twiddle their thumbs.

  2. More than 2-3 hours is sometimes the reality of travel. They aren’t focusing on keeping out ‘abusers’ of the lounge who purposely show up super early to eat and drink. They are limiting the usefulness of the lounge for real travelers, business people who get stuck at the airport due to misconnections or cancellations, when airline schedules for 2-3 hour connections or when meetings end early and you just need to be productive at the airport.

  3. So much for catching a shower after an overnight flight and heading to work. Most Centurion lounges have showers, Popping into the lounge for a shower and a coffee on arrival is legitimately useful.

San Francisco Centurion Lounge

If they need to limit access to the lounge they should post real-time status updates online to give customers notice. A better approach could be to limit the number of free visits that a cardmember gets.

Ultimately there are too many people who have been eligible to use the lounges, who have wanted to use the lounges, relative to the size of the lounges. There’s only so much they can do to expand capacity in the airports they work in (and larger lounges are going to attract more people who still stay longer, since currently some people – like me – often stay away precisely due to the crowding).

It is simply difficult to offer a quality lounge product which includes a peaceful, quiet experience for the number of people who have access through Platinum American Express cards.

Fortunately in San Francisco there’s now (2) Priority Pass restaurants in the same terminal, Yankee Pier near gate 72 and San Francisco Giants Clubhouse near gate 82. They don’t offer showers, however.

(HT: mmmmmray)

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. I’d always pop in after arriving for a quick bite for the drive home. However, I basically stopped using the SFO lounge as the crowding is so bad. I wind up using the United Club more and more at SFO. Specifically, the rotunda location which is pretty large and had a cubical area.

  2. SF has consistently been the *worst* Centurion Lounge for me (even worse than SEA IME) as they let people in without managing the actual capacity – you come in only to find there’s no where to sit and be productive. I haven’t bothered going in at all this summer as I just gave up

  3. I have been denied entry (too full) the last 3 visits to Centurion Lounges.
    Tomorrow I leave from SFO – should I just ignore them and go to a Priority Pass lounge or other Star Alliance lounge?

  4. I have seen the food in MIA deteriorate over time. At the beginning it was soo good. Fresh, big portions, different changing menus, really good desserts. Now they almost always serve the same chicken or nasty meatloaf, and most of the time no dessert or just the raising chocolate cake.

    It never ocurred to me this was due to overcrowding. Very interesting.

  5. Every single time I’ve gone into the SFO Amex lounge I’ve left shortly after because of massive overcrowding. Even the old United Lounge that was half-sized because of the Polaris construction was less crowded! There would be people sitting on the floors and standing around watching like hawks for anyone to leave so they could swoop in to grab a seat.

    All that said, I don’t think this will help. SFO is a very common transit point for people connecting on flights to/from East Asia, and the lounge is hugely undersized.

  6. @ Gary — This lounge product was ruined long, long ago by overcrowding. I prefer an old POS United Club over one of these any day. They should charge everyone except Centurion card members a nominal entry fee ($10-$20) to use them if they really want to solve the problem. After all, it’s called the “Centurion” lounge not the “Platinum” lounge.

  7. I agree with Gene, there should be a fee if even modest. As a Centurion holder it lowers the value of the card to have a lounge so full that you don’t want to go in there.

  8. They can do something. Since Platinum used to give lounge access to Continental AND United. Why not give 4 lounge visits a year to United or American lounges?

    Forget the $15 cat and mouse Uber credit. I rarely ever use Centurion lounges because I’m at a delta hub.

    I’d be happy to exchange my useless Uber credit and priority pass membership (already have it with 3 other cards) for an entry reimbursement to an AA or UA club, even if it maxed out at 3 times a year.

  9. I find the SFO airport experience to be underwhelming in general, as a professional who spent 198 day on the road and took 78 flights last year , 23 of which went through SFO, I find the majority of the lounges lacking in food, beverage , showing and sleeping options. My job provides me with Admiral lounge access and I find AA has pretty decent lounges and rather small crowds in the majority of their locations

  10. I’m at the lounge now, and they told me that this was a temporary restriction due to crowds. That could mean that the restriction is lifted in the mornings, when your tired red-eye traveler wants to use the lounge showers.

  11. This is a problem of Amex’s own making, and most people miss the point (and history) entirely. Previously, the value in having Amex Platinum was for access to the boring airline clubs when traveling on them. It was a great card because it covered just about all the US carrier’s lounges apart from UA, even though they were crap products.

    Then the carriers started not renewing their contract with Amex and so Amex entered the game on its own, and did so with a big splash. IMO they went too far and ‘overimproved’ the US lounge concept and drastically underestimated demand and capacity. So here we are today, and they’re charging a higher annual fee than last year while at the same time now scaling back benefits. Hmmmm, sound familiar? Color me not impressed.

  12. How difficult is it to forecast demand and then build an appropriately sized space? I pay $550 USD per year for a platinum card, granted there are numerous other benefits, and then show up to the Centurion Lounge in SYD only to find that it’s a zoo. Really a poor reflection on the Platinum brand IMO

  13. Like everyone here I have given up on this lounge at SFO and use the UAL lounge now. They have the same problem everywhere I try them now though. In Sydney I went and they were full so they sent us to the One World lounge next door. It was mostly empty and actually quite nice. You use to go to the lounge to get away from everyone. Now you are better off at the gate since everyone seems to have a way to get into the lounge.

  14. This is such garbage. If I have a lengthy connection the whole point of the lounge is to provide me a space to be productive away from the bustle of the terminal. With a $550 annual fee there’s got to be a way to make this work.

  15. I agree that SFO isn’t too impressive. The worst is when it’s jam jacked and then they leave several tables for Centurion card members (they have sign) but many times I see these tables empty the entire time I’m there.

  16. If you are relying on Centurion clubs to work, you will likely be SOL. The only domestic clubs I have been able to get work done in on a consistent basis are Delta and Admirals clubs. At SFO, both of these airlines offer solid clubs. Similarly at SEA, the SkyClub beats the Centurion Club hands down.

  17. 10-15 free entries a year (including guests & kids over 2) and after that $30 a pop would solve this and preserve the value for 90% of the cardholders. Business travelers can expense anyways and there are also priority pass lounges.

  18. They need to up the annual fee on the platinum card some more. That ought to weed out some. I’m willing to pay more for a more exclusive experience.

  19. @Chase — I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s a shame that the AMEX/airline lounge relationship fell apart. It probably makes more sense for the airlines to run the lounges (which tend to be larger, and which can be restricted as necessary to travellers holding tickets on the airline) instead of AMEX. And AMEX did go too far to make the lounges “too attractive” — and therefore too crowded. Like the fancy bars are unnecessary and slow. Provide a decent beer and wine selection and call it a day. I’d also simply the food (although AMEX does do a pretty good job keeping their buffet replenished).

    I do wonder if the expansion of the Priority Pass program will diminish AMEX lounge crowding though. Like at SFO, a free meal at even a mediocre restaurant probably trumps a visit to the overcrowded Centurion Lounge for most folks. I know in Miami I tend to visit the restaurants and not the AMEX lounge. Of course, we could also debate whether the Priority Pass restaurant access is sustainable.

  20. Agree with Nick. Centurion cardholders should keep their current access. We Plat Card holders should be limited to 12-18 free entries used per person. Then charge $25-30 per person after that. Or raise the annual fee to $995, but they’d likely not generate as much revenue in the long run. There’s just too many people with access. They need to meter it. Maybe they sell extended memberships without unlimited access to heavy users?

  21. SFO is the worst. Bad food, overcrowded, bad bartenders.

    Seattle – small but BEST bar tenders and great sandwiches. I do not care for the food in most the lounges, too weird and they don’t believe in chicken breast.

  22. I travel to SFO every 6 to 8 weeks. It’s been a while since I bothered to stop at the SFO Centurion Lounge. Too crowded. The United Club has been a relative oasis in comparison.

  23. They still haven’t caught on the real overcrowding problem at SFO. I expanded to a 250-person operation and am using the lounge as office space.
    I keep thinking an airline will catch on to the 250 refundable tickets cancelled after check-in daily,
    but that’s their problem.
    I’m cheap, and I’m not paying for WE WORK .

  24. I can understand lounge overcrowding and I have no problem limiting the number of guests people can bring in. The cheapskates with the PP who have one credit card but bring in 10 people should be stopped. That being said these lounges are not soo amazing that people are going to intentionally show up more than three hours in advance (I found a skyclub in Atlanta which impressed me more than the LGA centurion club. The only people who need it for more than three hours are those stuck on long layovers etc. Seems to me the best policy is that lounges should only limit access to three hours before IF they are already at capacity. If the lounge is not crowded no reason why people shouldn’t be able to go in earlier.

  25. These lounges are all better than the lounges of olden times and I appreciate the efforts of AMEX, Priority Pass, and the airlines to upgrade the airport experience. What we need now is a long, hard business downturn to flush out the short-timers and opportunists. It’s coming and it will be awesome!

  26. Too many platinum cards floating around. It was an exclusive thing at one time.
    Tiffany’s isn’t closing down it’s store anymore for me to use my platinum card. I don’t mind paying per visit, or paying more for the card. LAS is rarely bad though. SFO has so many upper class tech mellinials I don’t know what solves the problem there other than a collapse of VC funding

  27. I visited the SFO lounge the first week it opened and it was a wonderful experience. Now it’s a nightmare. I have just landed at SFO from a long international flight and was denied entry. I am now sitting at a quiet restaurant instead. Amex will lose its most loyal customers with their recent restrictions and over marketing of their platinum card.

  28. I arrived at 4.31pm for a 7.35pm flight this afternoon and was asked wait 4 minutes in reception – yes FOUR minutes.

    I understand a Policy has to be strictly enforced but the reality is that flights board 45 mins before departure and one should allow at least another 25 mins to get to gate and queue. The reality is a time limit somewhat less than 2 hours.

  29. Adding a recent data point. My husband was refused entry by an extremely rude woman today at the SFO centurion lounge because he came in literally ONE MINUTE, as in an actual sixty seconds, before 3 hours prior to departure. The angry wench working the desk couldn’t be bothered to TELL him why, or heaven forbid, ask him to wait 60 seconds before allowing him in, she just shoved his card and boarding pass at him and said ‘You can’t come in. Try later.’ He asked for a manager, and the manager could not have cared less about his rude employee, just told him he had been refused because of the 3-hour rule and that he could come in now.

    It’s a good thing I wasn’t there or I’d have needed bail money.

    I am SO sick of the rude, crap service from every facet of Amex lately! ‘PREMIUM’ card, my A**!

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