Should Virgin Atlantic Lounges Exclude Credit Card Guests From Eating?

The Virgin Atlantic lounge at Washington Dulles uses a QR code for ordering plated meals, and that code is given only to Virgin’s own passengers – and not to guests entering the lounge via American Express or Capital One credit card – creating two levels of service for passengers who are visiting. Is that acceptable? And is there a better way to handle the economics?

If an IHG Rewards elite member gets upgraded to club level at Intercontinental, the hotel isn’t required to also let them have club lounge access unless they’ve selected that as an elite choice benefit. The room type doesn’t necessarily confer all of its benefits. And, separately, some hotels have created separate clubs to fulfill the club lounge benefit while retaining their nicer spaces for paying guests. Both of these practices seem, to me, to be in poor taste.

  • A club level room on the club floor should come with club access
  • An elite member that has opted for club access as their prized benefit should be given access to the hotel’s club, not a stripped down room with coffee, tea and cold snacks meant just for elites and not ‘real’ club guests of the hotel.

Matthew Klint observed a similar practice at the Washington Dulles Virgin Atlantic lounge and was bothered by the ‘separate but equal’ nature of welcoming credit card customers into the lounge but refusing to serve them food that he referred to the situation as apartheid. He’s since apologized for that, realizing that complaining about unequal treatment based on the airline one is flying isn’t quite the same as Jim Crow in the U.S. or racial segregation in South Africa.

Nonetheless, I thought it how Virgin Atlantic lounges are handling monetizing the space and treating guests was an interesting topic.

  • Historically when Virgin first started accepting Priority Pass it was for limited hours, when Virgin didn’t have their own flights. They were paying for the space and the lounge was empty. So why not pick up some incremental revenue?

  • But they didn’t cater the lounges the way they would when their own passengers were inside (and when the lounges would be off limits to Priority Pass customers).

  • During the pandemic Virgin Atlantic went through a number of changes (even a bankruptcy!). One thing they’ve done is outsource outstation lounges to Plaza Premium group. Those lounges now accept a wider variety of guests without time restriction.

  • Plaza Premium lounges are accessible to American Express Platinum and now Capital One Venture X cardmembers.

The Virgin Clubhouse at Washington Dulles isn’t accessible via Priority Pass, but the Priority Pass model is instructive. The ~ $23 that Priority Pass pays when their card is swiped isn’t going to cover plated meals.

Here’s what you normally expect from a Priority Pass lounge in terms of food – scrambled eggs from egg mixture, potatoes, and cold pastries, from ‘The Club’ in Charleston:

In contrast at the Virgin Atlantic lounge, Matthew had 4 plated courses, a nice looking salad, grilled cheese, a burger, and cheese plate.

I’d love it if a credit card swipe with a third party lounge got me this at the airport. All you get at American Express’ own Centurion lounges is a buffet, and I haven’t seen beef in one of those in a long time. The food is quite good in Capital One’s only lounge (so far) at Dallas – Fort Worth. But on a pay-per-swipe basis it’s really too much to expect.

It’s nice that the lounge is accessible to credit card customers at all (for those customers, not for Virgin’s customers who would prefer more exclusivity). And it’s nice that the lounge is accessible for the entire time that it’s open, from 2 p.m – 9 p.m.

I don’t like having two levels of service for people, once they’re inside the lounge. I’d much prefer that everyone inside is treated to the same level of hospitality. But credit card companies aren’t paying enough to make that work. So what I’d love to see is the offer of a modest upcharge, like $20 for meal service on top of the payment the lounge is already getting for access.

An upcharge is hardly unprecedented. Priority Pass guests who want to use an airport Minute Suites for more than an hour pay extra for that additional time, and are given a discounted rate. Those swiping a Priority Pass card at an airport restaurant get a $28 credit towards food, and pay for whatever else they want to order above that. Those who want a more robust experience from the Virgin lounge might enjoy the same sort of offer – the card gets them in the door, and then they have the option to spend more for a plated meal.

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. It’s clear at this point that credit cards and Priority Pass have thrown lounge supply and demand into disarray.

    The solution is for lounges to require a business or first class boarding pass to enter. Widespread unlimited access to lounges is not sustainable.

  2. FYI was at the Air France lounge at IAD last Saturday night while flying J on AF — they clearly were still letting PP guests in at night and it showed — comically overcrowded, almost no food, plenty of screaming kids, and bathrooms with toilet paper all over the floor. Was hoping they’d stop PP at night like some airlines—BA used to at night in their IAD lounge, but so it goes.

  3. The way everything is now regarding access to the lounges the airline has to do what it thinks is best. Over crowding is ridiculous and if they, the airlines operating the club, think by only offering a buffet for credit card holders (I am one of them) and an a la carte menu for those with status so be it. I do fly enough so that I do have status which would put me in with the preferred crowd, for lack of a better term. I do believe screaming and running around kids do not belong in the club.

  4. With the exception of the Qantas First Class lounge in Sydney and some other premium lounge experiences I’ve started to hate lounges generally.Early on I liked Amex lounges but they too became a feeding zoo with barefooted guests sleeping flat out and just packed.
    A sea of humanity that come to eat & drink anything within sight regardless of quality as if they hadn’t eaten in a year or two.
    Just like the swarms blocking aisles at Costco for a free sample or 20.
    Add to that lines to get in.

    I flew Virgin Atlantic SFO to LHR in Business/Upper Class thought their lounge & offerings to be subpar and on board dining even worse.I would fly almost anybody else but Virgin as I also felt cramped lying down in the lie flat seat.As a result I stopped earning in their program.
    I especially despise long hold times and that they don’t show partner availability online for award redemption.
    I’m happy to pay for what i want however these days I’m happier to find a quiet unused gate area and stay away from crowded areas if the opportunity exists.Years ago lounges felt exclusive

  5. Virgin didn’t have to open up its lounges but it did. The credit card issuers / PP were invited to apply.
    The credit card issuers / PP could have negotiated for more but clearly didn’t. So, you get what you get. If you want more, earn it or pay for it.

  6. This isn’t unusual; the Lufthansa lounge in DTW only has warm food items in the hours before the single current LH flight, but is a PP and United Club (!) lounge during other hours — where there are sad sandwiches and crudites at best.

    It feels a little bait-and-switch (particularly for United, less so for PP) but in reality I have zero expectations on what a PP experience will be like, and this is far from the worst. *shrug* It’s a bit of a shameless cash grab for Virgin in your above case, but if Priority Pass feels this meets their brand standards than I think it’s fair game.

    I think the most egregious lounge situation is that you can’t access the Signature lounge when traveling on an AC award ticket. That’s the case where what is being provided should be equal.

  7. I wonder if VS and AF will just go back to not letting PP in after 2 when their business class customers start showing up. The pandemic is over. On the other hand, the IAD Polaris lounge has been attracting LH and other *A business class flyers from the LH and TK lounges.

  8. Any reports on whether accessing the Virgin Atlantic lounge with a Capital One card are treated/what kind of access is given? The difference there is that Capital One gets access through a direct partnership with Plaza Premium (which operates the IAD lounge), not a third party like Priority Pass. The logic for the dining downgrade doesn’t apply to C1 Venture X cardholders….

  9. Separate but equal. Do you know what that means? How it was practiced in the USA? To equate that to a f’ing airline lounge is mind boggling. WTF is wrong with you?

  10. It was obvious several years ago that airport lounges were gonna go down the tubes from overcrowding. I could never understand what the airlines were thinking. It is tacky as hell to limit guests to certain food/drink based on their membership ‘status’. The airlines have gotten themselves into a big mess … everyone’s climbing over each other, it’s very unpleasant and pretty soon it will all implode. Other than the Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow, I couldn’t care less about an airport lounge. Far better to bring/grab a snack and make a nest at an empty gate to get some work done or just read a book.

  11. Huey Judy, there is the Concorde Room and the Cathay Pacific lounge at LHR. Both provide what a lounge should provide: a relaxing environment and nice food.

    I agree that the airlines have let things get out of hand. They need to thin the herd. Access to airlines’ proprietary lounges should only be granted to 1) its own top-tier elites, 2) its alliance top-tier elites, 3) direct paid membership of $1500 per year, and 4) co-branded credit card membership with a similar annual fee. (Note: a Disney annual pass is $1600.) With that kind of annual fee, an airline wouldn’t need to hire out its lounge to Priority Pass, etc.

  12. K, your outrage is justified. But, to clarify, Gary did not posit the comparison. Another blogger did. That other blogger admitted his error and sincerely apologized.

  13. Gary, just to be clear you mention apartheid South Africa, a past (not really) historical situation. Israel inflicts apartheid on Palestinians NOW. Ie Israelis even get separate roads from settlements and one’s license plats determines where one can drive. So we would appreciate a current reference. I am sure you meant well, but that stung.

    Just a note of what stood out, since your references appeared to be past.

  14. @ Gary — This restriction does not exist at JFK T4 Virgin lounge. It took us three visits to this lounge this summer to even realize that this service is available. Why do people feel the need to eat like hogs immediately prior to boarding the plane to eat like hogs again?

  15. Geme: why? Because it’s free!
    This whole thing is a Tragedy of Enclosure. In an airport, there is a limited amount of space, and companies pay significant sums to use that limited space to provide their customers with a service.

    The number one value of that space is that it is not the public space of the airport. It’s quiet, people aren’t moving hurriedly in all directions, announcements aren’t constantly blaring, customers can loosen the bond holding them to their luggage, there are fewer people in general, and, as opposed to overpriced drinks and food, refreshment is free.

    Airlines operate lounges directly because they provide the opportunity to differentiate their product from others on the lucrative premium cabin market and for their most profitable repeat customers.

    But that limited space and the services included cost money, and the more people that go through that space, the lower the per-person cost. So, when a credit card, alliance, or other entity pays per person for lounge access, why not turn a cost center into a profit center?

    There’s nothing wrong with segmenting your service. One of the contract lounges in CPH has one room for airline guests and one for CC/Paying customers. Food and toilets are the same, but one room is much quieter, even when both are full.

  16. The Amex Centurion lounge at Stockholm-Arlanda Airport has menu ordering included for Platinum and Centurion card holders.

    And my guess is that the costs for food, service and utilities is higher at ARN that at IAD. Can it be that labor costs really be lower at ARN than at IAD?

  17. There should definitely be an exclusion of kids from lounges. And adults who yell, “momMEE” in the Centurion lounge in Miami. She was a complete dummkopf.

  18. The BA lounge at IAD does the same and even worst – deny anyone but BA passengers access to the food area (only the snack area). I am not talking about people getting in off hours via PP, but a Business Class(also Emerald) passenger flying on International flight out of IAD direct. I am referring when CX had a nonstop to HKG out of IAD. I don’t think there are too many international OW flights out of IAD – but the CX is an example.

  19. At the Virgin Atlantic lounge at Washington Dulles, for Platinum and Centurion American Express card holders, no soup for you. Membership has lost its privileges.

  20. @Randy, I came here to say the same thing.

    When you fly Qatar at IAD, they direct you to the Turkish lounge — which I find to be ok, but very cramped and always overflowing with people. So instead, I go to the BA lounge, which is a better experience. But to your point, since I’m not actually flying on BA, I’m not allowed to use Club Dining, where they offer real food. Instead, you can graze among their selection of pretzels, chips, and cookies. It’s a pretty mediocre experience, but I still prefer it over the chaos of the TK lounge.

    I believe this is the same at JFK. I don’t think you’d be in T7 unless you were actually flying on BA, but they still don’t allow you to enter the real dining area unless you are actually flying BA in first or business.

  21. Amazing how little those with status value their time. Private aviation is the solution.

    It’s far less expensive for airlines to allow regular (elite) customers into the “club” than to maintain tight flight schedules with short layovers.

    The combination of huge security delays, long layovers and sloppy oversight of departure times costs far too much time.

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