Last updated: 02:03 PM ET, Wed October 07 2015

Why It Will Be Harder to Get into Airline Lounges in the Future

Airlines & Airports | United Airlines | Josh Lew | September 24, 2015

Why It Will Be Harder to Get into Airline Lounges in the Future

PHOTO: Delta lounge at Heathrow. (photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

A la carte airline pricing policies are usually seen as negatives: checked baggage fees, having to pay for in-flight refreshments and so on. These are basic services, and many carriers are still charging for them even though they have realized record profits recently.

At the same time, airlines have earned praise from fliers by making some perks more accessible. For example, even if you are in economy class, you can pay your way into an airport club lounge by buying a day pass or signing up for a yearly membership. Furthermore, airlines will often sell premium class upgrades (and all the perks that come with them) at the last minute for very low prices. Even if they don't score one of these upgrades, fliers can often get some perks (lounge access and priority boarding) if they have an airline-specific credit card.

These extras have made fliers happy and more willing to choose a certain airline, but they have also caused some surprising side effects.

Overcrowded lounges

Airport lounges have become quite crowded. Pay-in passengers and credit card holders have joined those with elite frequent flier status or premium class tickets in the formerly exclusive clubs. The result is that these places — which used to be havens away from the terminal chaos — are now often just as crowded as the public areas of the airport.

Passengers have had to actually sit on the floor inside lounges when all the seats were filled. Food Network star Alton Brown tweeted about having to use the floor as a chair at United's LAX club. 

What can airlines do? Making lounge access easier has obviously proved popular. But crowded lounges may actually scare away people who are willing to pay for premium services. Yearlong lounge memberships usually start in the $500 range, and day passes are $35-$50.

Airlines are making money on their lounge schemes, but they don't want to chase away premium passengers and businesses that shell out hundreds or thousands more than average fliers per flight for premium class services. If these big spenders end up having to sit on the lounge floor next to the “Good Eats” guy, how long will it be before they decide to take their business elsewhere?

Creating a more exclusive environment

United has made a move to (eventually) end the overcrowding problem. They have announced some new restrictions. For example, lounge access will be limited to people who have a same-day boarding pass. This will mean fliers on a longer layover can’t simply camp out at the lounge. The rules change won't go into effect until 2016. 

Delta is also getting in on the act. Prices for an annual lounge pass with jump more than 50 percent. Membership to the airline’s SkyClub lounges will go from $450 to $695 per year. The airline is doing this subtly by creating a new class of membership. People at the $450 level will have to pay $29 for guest passes, while the “executive” members who shell out $695 will still get complimentary guest passes. The $450 level will most likely be quietly phased out completely in the near future.    

Special perks for the highest-paying fliers

On many airlines, first class passengers have access to different lounges. And, after announcing record-breaking profits recently, airlines are starting to focus on premium class fliers again. American Airlines has a separate VIP entrance at LAX (and also in Chicago, New York and Miami). First class passengers making connections at the massive Los Angeles airport are whisked between terminals in private cars. Delta actually uses Porsches for this service

Overall, unless you are flying first class, things are getting less comfortable. Yes, airlines have given extra perks like lounge access and cheap upgrades from regular fliers. But they have also done other things to increase profits. Installing less-bulky seats and edging them ever closer together has allowed airlines to fit an extra row or two into each plane. Seat-back cushions have been made thinner to also add valuable centimeters to the cabin. 

Over the next few years, as long as profits continue to flow, airlines will probably be focusing on making “elite status” elite again. The rest of us will be phased out of lounges, or new premium-class clubs will be built and the standard lounges that are so easy to get into now will lose their air of exclusivity. 


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