Should Airline Lounges Fix Crowding By Keeping Out The Poors?

Live and Let’s Fly asks whether the ‘middle class ruined airport lounges’ and concludes that, in fact, credit card companies providing lounge access has ruined it. Neither is exactly correct.

The best lounges are exclusive, because they’re a respite from the terminal. There are plenty of exclusive lounges, from Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal to the Emirates A concourse first class lounge in Dubai – where an entire level of the terminal is set aside for first class (I’ve been the only passenger there for hours). When we talk about crowded lounges we’re talking generally about,

  • Airline membership lounges or business class lounges
  • Pay-in independent lounges, often accessible by credit card
  • Bank’s own lounges built for credit card customers

Crowding at each has slightly different reasons. Why are there too many passengers for the space?

  • Credit cards have provided a discounted way to buy access, a better deal for some customers than paying for a membership outright. That’s because it’s valuable to the bank and airline for the customer to take the credit card.

    Access to airline lounges via credit card isn’t the same at all airlines. Delta lounges offer their own premium co-brand cardmembers access, but also all Amex Platinum cardmembers too. So it matters most at Delta. American’s card from Citi has been cheapest, and offers access not just to the primary cardholder but also no annual fee additional cardmembers on an account too.

  • At the same time, bank lounges reduce overcrowding in airline lounges. That’s because there’s more lounges, and more space, to spread customers out over.

  • Priority Pass lounges seek crowding by taking Priority Pass revenue. The more crowded the lounge the more they make, since they earn a fixed fee per swipe. Credit cards pay for Priority Pass, but isn’t the lounge just as much to blame?

  • Airline lounge crowding is also an artifact of history, and in particular civil rights legislation. Airline clubs were “relatively exclusive until the mid-70’s” when government regulators insisted that airlines open their doors. In some sense, the democratization of lounges dates to 1974,

    [The Civil Aeronautics Board] decreed that the carriers had the choice of opening the clubs to all people, or of opening them to all passengers or all passengers traveling in a particular class, such as first class, or of opening them to members of a club, provided that anyone who requested membership in the club and paid the membership fee, if any, could join.

  • TSA is also to blame, causing people to spend more time at airports. Given the uncertainty of how long the screening process will take, people will come to the airport earlier, and find they have more time to kill. That makes clubs relatively more attractive, and also means club members spend more time in lounges.

  • The pandemic is to blame, changing the mix of business and leisure travel (there’s still far less managed corporate travel than pre-pandemic, and the consultant Monday – Thursday client site trips are down markedly). Leisure travelers spend more time in airports, frequent business travelers tend to cut it closer.

  • Airline consolidation is to blame, often leading to the closing of ‘duplicative’ lounges in airports. Take Washington National, where both American and US Airways used to operate clubs across from each other on the center concourse of the main terminal. The old US Airways Club was closed there. United and Continental both used to operate clubs there, now the old Continental club is used. And Delta and Northwest both used to have clubs. The old Northwest club was pre-security in the old (banjo) terminal and was closed.

It’s ultimately a complicated, multi-factor story that leads to lounge overcrowding, too many passengers chasing too little space. It’s been worse at Delta’s clubs, both because of Amex Platinum cardmembers and because they have a product people are willing to stand in line for, and because they do not yet have a separate business class lounge product to segregate those passengers like American and United do.

But it’s also been bad at American Express clubs, because the lounges set a new standard in the U.S. and people flocked to them. Five years ago I wrote that Amex lounges had gotten so crowded nobody goes there anymore.

I remember standing in a line 20 people deep for a cappuccino in Alitalia’s Botticelli lounge at Milan Malpensa airport 15 years ago. Credit cards weren’t the issue. It was filled with business class passengers and SkyTeam airline elites. And that lounge wasn’t so good it was drawing in passengers, either. In fact the shower drains were clogged and they frequently ran out of ‘shower kits’ (towels and disposable slippers to wade through the puddles in). Meanwhile I ate a lifetime’s worth of packaged Tillamook cheese in United Airlines Red Carpet Clubs 20 years ago, long before there was a credit card path to entry. The good old days of exclusive-feeling club lounges weren’t always so good, even for those who had access.

Ultimately the Live and Let’s Fly take that “we must lay the blame where the blame is due: on the credit card companies” is, I think, overly simplistic.

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. There is No middle class. Only upper and lower. People just trying to convince themselves by making stuff up.

  2. I’m not so sure its the poor as much as bottom feeders coming in with every kind of CC access possible or other.I’d rather be in a big spacious terminal with room
    than a small covid holding pen lounge? till my flight departs
    At least the airport has air that is circulating and more room to move around

  3. great article and perspectives, Gary.
    The standard of living is higher than ever and more people are buying up including for lounge access.
    There aren’t any poor or rich in travel as long as they pay for the services offered and more pointedly don’t go in debt doing it.

    Let’s also not forget that flights are much more full now than they were in the 70s. The two year break from packed flights is over. Not sure why people think that airline lounges should still be private when they accept full flights.
    The alternative is private aviation – and the price is too steep for many people to make the jump.

  4. Just ask yourself the question, is the cost and hassle of the modern “lounge experience” worth it compared to going to an airport restaurant finding an empty gate. Hell no.

  5. Domestic lounges are a luxury for travelers anyway. After all, after you checked in, you are in safe area, and I’ve yet to hear shooting incident in the terminals. The only one that came closer was years ago, EL AL checking on n counter was shot at in LAX. I think the shooter was taking down pretty quick by EL AL security personnel, and LAX Airport Police arrested the shooter immediately after that. I’ve been business traveler for over 20 years, and once I was going home from Beijing Capital Airport in early 2000s. Flying JAL to Tokyo, then NRT to LAX on AA. There was no AA or JL lounge in PEK at the time. I was advised that BA lounge was available. There wasn’t that many people at all. Several years later, as Chinese Business travelers and millionaires leisure travelers were all start to rubbing elbows with all the elite flyer. That’s progress I suppose. I do think in the US there are to many access way to access lounges. Credit card lounges are not new ideas. I’ve been using Diners Card, and in Asia many banks credit cards also offer those, and they tend to be more crowded than the airline lounges. I remember in Taipei Diners Club lounge was the EVA Air lounges, and was quite nice. In Detroit, Diners Club is the Lufthansa lounge. It’s nice little secrets for traveler s to find hideaway Oasis in the airports.

  6. I would settle for getting the unlimited United Club access that I paid for long ago with my lifetime membership. The thieves at United stole that access from all lifetime members a few years ago. Delta and American honored their deal with their lifetime members. Not United.

  7. The co-branded cards are priced too low versus demand. The issue is Citi/Amex/Chase…they just don’t care. I’d guess for every Flyertalker who puts $0 spend on their club card there are way more that put 100% on it. For the issuers lounge access is a big carrot.

    If it was me….I might consider a rebate system. We have the AA Citi Exec card (currently using 4 AUs). If AA/Citi really wanted to cut down on lounge access, I would put the AF at Admirals Club +$xxx. Make it more expensive. But if you spend $10k/yr you get $100 off. If you spend $20k you get $200 off and so on. Get to the point where people who actually spend get a discount on AC memberships versus people who are effectively spending $45 for them and their 10 friends/family to have AC membership.

    Luckily, as an AA flyer, I don’t think AA has the issues DL or Amex has. At my home airport of ORD, I’ve never seen it that bad where I can’t find a seat. And the non-home airports I’ve also not seen this. Maybe Delta is just too big with too few lounges at its hubs. Atlanta and JFK probably need 100k sq ft of lounge space to meet demand on some days.

    I think airlines might also consider adding a higher tier of paid lounges. Only available to elites and the only access is paid….and only at hubs (or important stations). Basically a higher priced lounge a real business person can access at all times and probably double the price. Price out the wanna b’s and travelers who paid $89 to upgrade their $119 ORD-CUN fare. They could even make it a club within a club. United Club members get the free smirnoff bloody’s and Jimmy Dean bfast sandwiches. But what do Tulip Club (patent pending :)) members get behind that fancy wall?!?! If I traveled at all for work I’d pay for that.

  8. Poor people aren’t shelling out $695 for access to a lounge. Broke ass people wanting access so that they can pretend to those on “da gram” that they “finally made it” are probably the folks crowding the place. You know…the folks who hold the Platinum but moan that they can’t find a cheap pair of socks at Saks to burn the credit. Like Saks, the Platinum card is out of their league but they’ll seek any reason to justify the hefty price they pay for it.

    For those who are offended by the ‘broke asses” having access are only bitter because their club lounges aren’t exclusive anymore; every Tom, Dick, and Harry now has access and can finally peak behind the curtains of what use to be off limits to the occasional run-of-the-mill traveler.

    It’s all a mess…and for what…some Mac & Cheese, watered down soup, and hummus and crackers that looks to be 3 hours past their prime?

    Yea…I too used to be a sucker for lounge access. Now I try to get to the airport with just enough time to almost miss my flight…and on the rare occasion I arrive early and want to eat, I try to find a place that is just slightly outside the price range that the noise makers are willing to pay…thus having a peaceful environment.

  9. The correct solution is for the government to provide basic free food vouchers to every traveler, so people won’t necessarily feel the need to go to the lounge if all they want is a basic lunch

  10. “Why are there too many passengers for the space?”

    It couldn’t be simpler – the lounge providers should be scaling their respective lounge operations for the size of their clientele.

    If there are more flights (premium and elite customers) and higher passenger loadings, credit cards issued with relevant benefits, whatever, the operation needs to be upscaled accordingly. The lounge operator is getting the upscaled revenue.

    Surely, the consumer should be resisting this dumb mentality that they are the cause (thereby some of the excuses above in the article) rather than putting the focus on the failure to deliver the advertised lounge benefits (however earned by the consumer) and qualifications for such back onto the provider.

  11. Crowding wasn’t an issue when Diners Club and Amex Platinum were the only card-based lounge access programs.

  12. This is why we have a Green Party, folks! Democrats claim to fight for the working class and disenfranchised until said issues inconvenience them! The fact that the Green Party is not a major political party in the US says everything about what’s wrong with this country… If I remember correctly, there used to be a Republican-Democrat party centuries ago, which basically describes the state of US politics today…

  13. Airlines share the blame. In two weeks my wife and I are flying from Sydney to Redmond, Oregon. Five hour layover in LAX followed by an eight hour forty seven minute layover in SLC. We are absolutely parking our bodies in the Delta SkyClub. Delta eliminated the mid-day flight to our home airport.

  14. Only first class Delta gets fed a hot meal (on longer flights). Even Comfort + only gets a small packet of dry biscuits. TSA forces the poor to come several hours early with no drinks and limited food: poors are hungry and thirsty. It’s not like it used to be. Lounges r us.

  15. Airport lounges from what I have experienced are over rated. Sure there are some that are high end and they should remain high end but the typical lounge has poor service and few amenities along with undesirable food options. You can have your lounges and feel important and can careless about them.

  16. You know why I use airport lounges (Besides showers after long flights when I have a layover that is also long–which is a primary reason on those occasions)? None of the fancy reasons or status symbols are the reasons why. It’s because noise is so bothersome to me that I can’t think or concentrate with constant announcements. I do not want to be forced to listen to music for hours with my earpods or headphones just to drown out other noise. When I go to the Admirals Clubs, I can get a fountain drink, which is all I want, a light snack if I am hungry, and then sit in a comfortable chair or even lounge. I can work or not work, but most of all the noises are no worse than people talking normally or the occasional clanking dinner plate, unless I am near the bar, which I am not. Some of us seriously struggle with sensory input. These lounges are a gift from those loud and incessant announcements, as well as myriads of people walking by on speakerphone and Facetime. So yes, I will pay for that respite if it means arriving at my destination in a bit of peace without a headache.

  17. A person of any socioeconomic level can go to VL or Prada and buy a purse (and, trust me, they do). As Tim Dunn posits, if a person is willing to cough up the cash . . . a person gains access.

    If the airlines want their lounges to be a premium experience, they need to define what that is in terms of occupancy loading, ambiance, quality of food, presentation of food, service level, etc. They then need to engage in price discovery. Currently, the airlines have not discovered the optimal price.

  18. Suz, I agree with you 100 percent. It is for the same reason that I enjoy a lounge: a calm, quiet, and relaxing environment. And, I’m willing to pay for it.

  19. @Lee From all of the recent complaints on various blogs and forums, lounges as of late are neither calm, quiet, or relaxing…and that’s after a long wait just to get in.

  20. Funny how I rarely have a problem entering overseas lounges, except the independent PP lounges. That is because Euro airlines tend to limit access to biz class passengers.

    The problem is not the cards – the problem is that independent lounges have no incentive to raise the bar because they max profits when the lounge is full with a line out front. As with most supply/demand issues this could easily be fixed by appropriate pricing. When a product is free, people consume more of it.

  21. Yes!!!! Keep out everyone who didnt pay for their own ticket. Tired of all the low level $50k low level salesmen peacocking the lounge as if they are not only there because their corporate overlord bought their ticket.

  22. You list a bunch of minor causes compared to the major one Matthew identified. Your list is useless without some weighting to the numbers.
    I think it’s obvious to anyone who uses the lounges regularly over the years, the game changed when cc’s gave easy access.
    What’s the point of your blog? To discredit other bloggers, to show you’re smarter than everyone else, or just to be an ass?
    I think the last one since it gets more clicks… because I know you’re not stupid.

  23. Underrated cause – degradation of on plane service (food and beverage) and long lines in the terminals. The clubs are often the only places to get a bite to eat and a drink along a travel journey. Traveling economy and connecting? You better think about lounge access at the connection point carefully or you go all day without a meal.

  24. Supply is greater than demand and note airlines and lounge providers aren’t saying they’re losing money on lounges. So the rational business solution is more lounges. But airlines and many industries supporting airlines are not actually focused on making their customers happy, so the easiest (and thus automatic go-to) solution for them is to abuse some subset of their customers. Again. Shareholders should be pissed.

  25. let’s get a little perspective here, folks,
    Airline lounges were not swamped before the pandemic.
    They set largely empty – if not closed for large chunks of time after March 2020.
    Demand has dramatically increased in less than a year. Some airlines have responded.
    Delta alone has opened or expanded Sky Clubs since the pandemic at LGA, LAX, ORD and Tokyo Haneda plus BNA and BOS.
    They say they are working on expanded or new lounges at BOS (another lounge), MSP, JFK, FLL, EWR, MIA and ATL.

    United has also added lounges and there are a number of credit card lounges that have opened or are opening. Someone can list the new or expanded AA lounges.

    The notion that airlines or credit card companies are simply pocketing all this money is simply not at all accurate.

  26. @Tim Dunn “Airline lounges were not swamped before the pandemic” it very much varied by lounge! Delta JFK T4 was frequently a mad house. So was SLC! The AA Miami lounges, United at EWR. Plenty of lounges lacked capacity to meet demand of those with access prior to the pandemic.

  27. @Babblespeak – spinning up new lounges isn’t just expensive and time consuming, getting space in airports is a huge challenges. Many terminals have been completely picked over throughout the years (remember no major airport in the US has opened since DEN nearly 30 years ago, new terminals sure) it’s not like there is space everywhere for the taking.

  28. @Boraxo on the countrary European airlines invite business class passengers and elites, while US airlines keep out a majority of their premium cabin passengers and do not as a general rule offer access to most passengers based on status. US airlines charge for access (whether membership or card) while European airlines ‘give it away’!

  29. @Bob – credit cards provided access prepandemic when lounges were crowded but not as many lounges were as credit. If you were smarter rather than focused on being an ass you would ask what is different that causes crowding?

    Number of people with access matters. Sure that involved people with credit cards. It also involves everyone who had their status extended in addition to earned. But status extenders mostly end early next year and that won’t solve the problem (or Delta wouldn’t be adding new restrictions right when those folks roll off). Hence it is obviously a mix of factors.

  30. How about mini-lounge machines where you insert your lounge/credit card and get a free grab-and-go salad, fruit bowl, sandwich and beverage and bug out to wait at the gate?
    Not as good as a lounge, but at least you don’t fly on an empty stomach.

  31. While AA lounges are only modestly crowded nowadays, in my observation a significant fraction of the customers (50% – I do not know) is gaining access through a credit card. Note that it is easier to expanse Admirals Club membership fee vs. credit card fees. Thus, many of these customers are the folks who will not be buying Club membership from AA. The same with Priority Pass. Before Chase Sapphire this wasn’t a benefit. Now one could get Priority Passes with mid-tier HHonors Amex. I have a friend who is an occasional traveler who cherishes his annual 10 passes from that card and typically tries to route his travel through IAD. There is no way he will pay for an access or a membership. That is why many of those lounges are now restricting access to Priority Pass. Two weeks ago I happened to have a 3 hrs layover in SIN in the morning. From the best of my knowledge, none of the Oneworld lounges were open at that time (I have arrived on JAL connecting to Singapore Airlines on a separate ticket). I think we were in Terminal 3 and only one of the lounges was accepting Priority Pass. At 9 am the line to enter was 20 people deep even though the offering inside the lounge was mediocre.

    I think the problem is that credit card companies are trying to gain/keep customers while the lounge operators are trying to save money. Note that the lounge customers are not the travelers but rather bank companies. So they do not care about crowding as long as they make money. Banks do not care about the situation either. (Did you try to complain to your bank that the lounge you were accessing was overcrowded?). This is in a stark contrast to the good older days when lounges were for the airline customers only. Thus, this mode of operation will never be traveler-oriented. The same problem is with AA giving status based on LPs. They do not care about their own customers and their flying experience but rather collecting revenue from selling miles to other entities.

  32. The bottom line is the lounges are overselling occupancy through various avenues. The revenue generated for occupancy isn’t being reinvested to ensue it can support the number of those eligible to use the lounge.

    There is also a component of goodwill that lounges offer that hurts paid members. It’s sounds great on paper to allow all service members and their travel companions free access unless the lounge is in an area with a large military presence

  33. Just because you fly a lot does not make you upper class. I guess one is “poor” if they don’t fly commercial in the front of the plane. I’ve always found you to be falsely pompous Gary. Really.

  34. OK, now let’s add some real perspective.
    As Live and Let Fly (“LALF”) notes, the headline “..the middle class has ruined airport lounges” comes from a travel headline in the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph. @Gary knows this full well since:
    1) LALF says so in his opening, and
    2) I sent Gary a copy of the article.

    Gary doesn’t quote the original article while LALF does: “Airport lounges were, once upon a time, the exclusive domain of the premium-class flier. Now there are many reasons why lesser mortals might have access. Credit cards like American Express’s Platinum Card offer it as a perk, regular fliers can buy annual passes, and even occasional travellers can often pay a one-off fee to secure a few hours of luxury before their departure.”

    Nowhere does the original article or LALF’s mention “the poors”. But I suppose we must grant Gary a little artistic license without unfairly accusing him of clickbaiting or gaslighting.
    Gary also lists a number of factors other than credit cards that contribute to lounge overcrowding, and they are valid — although, I suspect Gary’s perspective when it come to credit cards may be a bit, shall we say, tilted? 🙂

    My travel these days is almost all international. As such having as a minimum OW Emerald level to allow access to FC lounges outside the USA is important to me. The Cathay lounges at LHR remain a refuge. At least when I am there. As CK for now, I may still access the Concorde Room in T5, and I don’t care to trash it like so many bloggers queue up to. That said, understand that one of the major points in the article is peculiarly British — pay for play lounges. I know one may purchase day passes in the US but I rarely see anyone doing it,

    Credit cards, are, indeed the problem. Amex lounges are useless and I am probably not going to renew my Platinum card since it’s the only benefit worth anything to me. Cardholders getting extended families and traveling companions into the lounges have packed them to overstuffing to the extent that are basically not worth visiting. No seats, no food, endless queues at the bar…

    And then there’s the CITI Executive card — I have one of those too. The number of additional users allowed for the annual fee is a joke. It really should be the cardholder and one significant other. One might well ask why CITI does this. There was a time that the CITI card had great benefits, but CITI gutted those several years ago and left the Admirals Club benefit for the cardholder and legions of followers which seems to have worked for them — why not? It doesn’t cost them anything and generates card use fees.

    At the end of the day… lounges aren’t what they were. How to fix that problem? I think I will ask King Solomon.

  35. The post misses a key fact. The primary reason lounges exist is the main reason why they are crowded. Airports in the US suck. If gates and terminals weren’t so crowded and offered services people wanted (e.g. charging ports are a recent addition at many gates) at reasonable prices, there would be far less demand for lounges.

  36. Having retired to Malta three years ago, my wife and I often travel throughout Europe. Because I retired as a Lifetime 1K (Continental/UA), we get to pick which LH lounge we wish to go to in Frankfurt and Munich. In the Schengen area, I count one Senator Lounge and three Business lounges (don’t really need first class lounge) in Frankfurt, and a like number in Munich. Never really crowded no matter when I fly. And at our destinations, there is always an available LH or club lounge. You know, I don’t envy Elites in U.S. What’s to envy? Never a line, except when they were checking Covid certificates

  37. “TSA is also to blame, causing people to spend more time at airports.”

    Other than long layovers, which I’m generally successful at avoiding, this is really the only reason to even go to a lounge. No one should want to spend more time at an airport than they absolutely have to, and security is the primary reason for the “have to” part

  38. lounges in US were often not contemplated when airports were first built. The spaces are generally retrofitting existing spaces that are too small to begin with for hub cities

    I was in Madrid airport recently . Lounges were large and spacious and plentiful.

  39. Gary,
    I believe part of the new DL SLC terminal opened during the pandemic or not much before it.
    Delta has been working to gain more space at JFK for years. And they will triple the amount of club space in T4 within a couple years.
    United has opened new clubs at EWR as a result of terminal construction. (see a NYC theme here?)

    and even at MIA, large international operations which operate on banks are going to increase demand peaks that simply cannot be chased with capacity to meet every amount of demand with no waits.
    Queue science can show what people will wait for and for how long. People wait for many things in life; airlines have to figure out how much it is worth asking some people in some places to wait for a certain amount of time – or if it is worth building to meet 100% capacity with no waits at every hour of every day of every year.

    Credit cards are clearly where airlines make money- you have written that for years. It isn’t really a surprise that clubs are one byproduct of their profit motivation.

  40. @Tim Dunn – “I believe part of the new DL SLC terminal opened during the pandemic or not much before it.” But that’s my point, crowding isn’t just a problem of now (though there are current factors driving it).

  41. Create a one hour time limit, nobody needs to sit in a lounge hogging up space and food longer than that. There is free wifi out in the airport and plenty of seating areas..

  42. Well Gary, seems you have owned the “,poors” and triggered them. Many interesting “comments.”
    Of course, you have poked the
    Tim Dunn bear, I would expect no less. Now I must read 47 comments between plays on Sunday Night Football. I may even have comments left over to read while I sit in the bathroom. Yippee! My bowl runs over! Oh, guess I should read the article now. I had to read Tim Dunn’s defense first. Always interesting.
    I wonder what the final comments count will be?

  43. @ Alan

    Not all of those Senator lounges (Schengen) were open when I passed through FRA late morning a few weeks ago. The one that was open was close to capacity.

  44. Best lounge I’ve come across is free. It’s the outdoor patio at Denver Intl Airport. United has one at B1. It’s a great spot to watch planes and get fresh air. During winter and cool evenings they light the fire pits.

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