Why Are Airport Lounges So Crowded?

Passengers look for a way to escape the chaos of the airport. And more passengers who are traveling have access to lounges than ever. The nicer the lounge, the longer passengers stay there. They make an effort to visit, and they take advantage of the food and the libations.

Even when lounges do their best to limit access, to reduce crowding, that just attracts the passengers who had been staying away because the lounges were so crowded.

This was true to some extend before the pandemic. Centurion lounges were packed, and it’s been nearly six years since they began trying to do something about it. But the situation has gotten so much worse, and is no longer limited to Centurion lounges (and to Delta’s New York JFK terminal 4 lounge). Why?

Air Canada Senior Vice President Mark Nasr says travel behaviors have changed, and that the driver is premium leisure and work flexibility.

Nasr isn’t wrong, for sure, but I don’t think that’s the whole picture either. Lounges are crowded but not every airline’s lounges are equally crowded.

  • Delta has a unique premium card access challenge issue because it isn’t only their own premium cobrand that is an issue, everyone with an Amex Platinum or Centurion card traveling on Delta has access.

  • People spend more time in lounges when flights delay and cancel. That’s been a major issue for Air Canada but more of one than in past for Delta, too.

  • Status gets you lounge access at Air Canada (and at least on international itineraries with many other airlines) and airlines have been extending everyone’s status for a few years (people who earned it in 2019 generally still have it), plus making status easier to earn overall at several airlines (Air Canada via credit card and non-flight activity, American by credit card spend alone, Delta now counts miles from award travel).

  • The fact that people with lounge access spend more time in lounges precisely does mean that too many people have access relative to capacity. Indeed, Nasr recognizes this – they’re taking away Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge access from Aeroplan 35K elites next year.

It’s Worth Spending 90% Longer In The Air Canada Signature Suite

Premium credit cards have proliferated significantly in the U.S. since 2016. More people buying lounge access in more ways means more people with access. And in general clubs are better, more attractive places to spend time than they used to be. American Express put pressure on airlines to up their game. Capital One entered the space and now Chase is too. But the expansion of lounge options hasn’t kept up with passengers having access, or (as Nasr observes) spending more time in those lounges.

Air Canada has felt the issue of more time in lounges especially, and not just because they’re seeing more premium leisure passengers. Canadian airports have been a disaster, so passengers show up early in case security is a mess, and wind up spending more time airside as a result. Then Air Canada’s flights delay and cancel, stacking up passengers in the lounge. These issues will work themselves out, but lounges will remain crowded for awhile. And matters aren’t helped at American Express’ Escape partner lounges when those lounges sell discounted access on Groupon.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Dong is full of dung. It’s a combination of airlines extending status for everyone + premium credit card hustling by the airlines that are causing this.

  2. TSA and security issues, ride shares, etc make everyone arrive earlier and earlier to airports also generating way too much downtime pre-flight. I had lounge access for ten years that I never used because I timed my arrivals to nearly walk onto the flight. Not a chance of that anymore.

  3. Last week, there were over 50 people in line for the Sky Club in the B concourse at ATL on a Wednesday afternoon in late October. That’s an incredible number for mid-week.

    For Delta, I think the lounges are overcrowded partially because in-flight food in domestic economy or extra-legroom is nonexistent and the food in domestic first-class is borderline inedible.

    Sure, there are too many passengers with access. But, the people crowding the lounges are non-elites who are more often than not sitting in economy and not getting besides a cookie and a non-alcoholic drink.

  4. Airlines need to crack down their own here as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen lounge staff allow members to “squeeze” in one or two more family members (usually kids) than their membership allows. Then the brood spreads out across entire seating sections before attacking the buffet, degrading the experience for everyone.

  5. The change in mix from business customer to leisure customer is certainly one contributor. Sure business customers use lounges extensively, but “time is money” to a business customer, so they likely didn’t arrive as early to a lounge as say a leisure customer might. For years, the TSA and airlines have encouraged people to arrive well ahead of their flights due to congestion. However, business customers with access to priority security lanes, TSA precheck, Global entry, didn’t heed these warnings as much as the casual customer. So I think crowding becomes an issue as the mix of customers change to leisure who arrive earlier and thus stay longer than a typical business customer from the past.

  6. One more reason that lounges are more crowded are all the travel sites that promote how to gain lounge access.

  7. No surprises here. Put simply. FREE, Food and booze! And lines forming, one hour before they open. And you are lucky to get a seat.

  8. Access is given away like water

    Lounge space in most US airport is small. Lounges in Madrid for example were larger and more abundant than in most US airports where space is at a premium. Airports try to retrofit lounges into smaller areas and there are more eligible members coming to lounges

  9. Another problem is the design of the lounges themselves. There is so much wasted space.

    The designers cram a bunch of chairs together thinking that will increase capacity, but it’s a lot like widening a highway in Los Angeles. Adding additional lanes doesn’t decrease highway congestion.

    The same is true for lounges. Adding seats doesn’t decrease overcrowding because what happens is most people use the seat next to them for their coat or carry-on.

    So two people traveling together are likely occupying a seating area intended to accommodate four people.

    Plus, there’s the fact that the pandemic made social-distancing a thing. Nobody wants to sit right next to someone. So there’s almost always an empty chair between every person.

    Another design flaw are the sit-down dining areas that are becoming common in lounges. The dining tables are typically designed to accommodate two or four people. But many times the typical table only has one or two people at it. This makes 50% of the space wasted. Nobody wants to share a dinner table with a stranger.

    These basic design flaws mean the typical “full” lounge actually has dozens of empty seats that can’t actually be used.

  10. FNT brings up a great point – service on airlines has deteriorated massively, especially for economy customers, and even for first class. Delta continues to skimp on food and beverage offerings in economy relative to pre-Covid. Bring back fully stocked snack boxes, drinks, water, etc in economy, bring back free sandwiches/meals on long flights/transcons in economy, and people will see fewer need to spend an hour in the lounge pre-flight.

  11. The wasted space comment is good.
    The access approaches to lounges is so extreme without creative ways to manage demand. Let everyone in! No wait, keep everyone out!

    What if Amex Plat changed to offering 10 (or 20, or some number) of Centurion lounge credits a year? Access at peak hours costs 3 credits, off hours 1 credit. And guests just count as a one credit. Also reservations are barely being considered.

  12. Business travelers are interested in getting to their destinations. Leisure travelers aren’t in a hurry, arrive earlier and spend more time on the lounges. If we ever tip back to mostly business travelers things will settle. With the economy slowdown one would think there would be less leisure travel and business travel… but nothing is normal at least as we knew it.

  13. Everyone and their mom has an Amex Plat at this point. Amex should remove the military fee waiver and lounge access for auth users.

  14. @Mike: Both Delta and TSA were telling passengers to arrive 3 hours before their flight, including for domestic flights, this summer.

    There is no single reason why lounges are overcrowded. But having everyone arrive 90 minutes before they need to be there is surely a contributing factor.

    At DTW, 75% of the passengers accessing the 5 Sky Club lounges are getting inside because of credit cards. That figure is from several front desk agents who I’ve known for 10-plus years.

    I noticed the food at ATL and DTW has been downgraded for the fall and winter. Sandwiches, pasts salads and the like are back. The tea cup saucer-sized plates are back too. Sure it’s cheaper food but I suspect they don’t want the food to be so good that people linger or come just for the food.

  15. I like to feel like I’m in an exclusive private club with reasonable privacy like the good old days
    Now it’s just a giant holding pen for the untamed masses with people gobbling up anything that isn’t nailed down.As if they haven’t seen a meal in days.
    I’ve let my memberships expire and no intention of returning until they come up with solutions
    And the inappropriate attire has to go and talking loudly into cell phones or other obnoxious behavior unenforced.

  16. Imagine paying 650,000 Delta miles for business-class only to be denied access to the lounge!

  17. Anymore, I just consider a flight to be the same thing as a ride on a metro bus. Therefore, I eat a big meal before I get to the airport. Then I just buy a few snakes at the airport to bring along on the flight. This whole lounge access and premium flight experience got flushed down the toilet years ago. The premium lounge experience is just another Dumpster Fire.

  18. I forgo my lounge privileges more and more these days. Much more comfortable finding a quiet corner somewhere else in the airport. Besides, I don’t really need the free food and booze (and neither do you Gary).

  19. @ Gary — You left out the DL AMEX Reserve card, which also includes SkyClub access. Whatever the reasons for the over-crowding, it is the companies’ fault, not the passengers’.

  20. As Gene says, I find it odd that everyone mentions the Amex Platinum, but never the Delta Reserve, which by my eye is extremely popular with even casual Delta flyers. The card offers a first class companion pass, access to both SkyClubs and Centurion Lounges, a method to spend towards status, and typical Amex premium perks. This card seems MUCH more popular than either the United Club or American Executive cards, and Amex pushes it hard.

  21. Flight uncertainty is feeding into this for sure. Before Covid I opted for the shortest connection time, now I look for about 2 hours to make sure I don’t miss my connection. If the planes on time, I head to the lounge

  22. Delta has nothing to do with the Amex SFO overcrowding as it is a completely different terminal (and not a DL hub).

    As other note it is simply Amex overselling the lounge by issuing too many Plat cards. Everybody and their mother has one and they are all traveling now plus biz travelers as well.

    Unlikely to change until Amex changes lounge rules, and I’m betting the new guest rules that take effect on Feb 2023 won’t make a dent.

    It’s like Vail Resorts overselling lift tix and then being “surprised” at the crowds.

  23. Can’t recall the last time I cared to use a domestic airline lounge. Found the food uninspiring, too many loud people, crowded.

    Now the Emirates business lounge, especially in Dubai, a thing to behold. Singapore Air lounges nice. Hell, even the Air India lounge had better food. And surprisingly decent food in the Egypt Air business lounge. BA business lounge in London as well.

    Domestic, bleh.

  24. @ Dwondermeant

    Most of your comments are generally on the progressive side of things except when it comes to actually dealing with the masses.

  25. Hardly anyone goes to an airport lounge these days to escape the terminal “chaos.” There’s almost always more chaos in the lounge! They go for the free food and drink, and to enjoy “the status.”

  26. I hold an AA Admirals Club lifetime membership. So I use it often. But like the flights, the clientele in the clubs seems to have denigrated to a bus station.

  27. Who said European lounges aren’t crowded? I couldn’t find a seat at the Lufthansa Senator Lounge at Frankfurt last month. The lounge is supposed to be a more exclusive version of the Lufthansa Business Lounge.

  28. I agree with the sentiments Gary but this blog was promoting a cheap method (Qantas) of gaining access to Admirals Clubs – that certainly doesn’t help matters.

  29. @ChurnieEls – surely the number of people buying access at a discount through a short-lived qantas promotion is not a material cause of crowding

  30. Even before the pandemic, and traveling internationally mostly for work, I did not cut my timing too close. I liked to get to the airport early, not sweat whether there was a long line for security, and check my emails and work on the laptop a bit sitting in a lounge, preferably not one of the US airlines, unless it was Polaris or Flagship. Even better if you can eat a good meal before boarding in the lounge. On connections, I would again spend the time in a lounge if I could, recharging everything. So I’m not sure that the argument that business travelers cut it close and did not go to lounges much holds water. Time is money, but you can work anywhere these days, and that includes in a lounge.

    What I’ve never quite understood is people saying they prefer the terminal. Most of the time in my experience, those restaurants are even more crowded and loud than the lounges, and lack nice seating and electrical outlets.

  31. My Asian bro’ is only partially correct.
    Reduced lounge re-openings post pandemic is a huge factor ..
    Case in point @ ICN T1 Matina Lounge has re opened while Matina Gold is not.
    It’s a ZOO In There!!
    P/s Dong is Dung

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