Airport lounges, the flyer's respite for unlimited food, drink and Wi-Fi, closed when COVID-19 hit, an early casualty of the pandemic. Now they are reopening in the United States, but experiences vary — many have returned to full capacity while others remain shuttered or lack full service.
There are roughly 250 lounges in U.S. airports, according to Zach Griff, who researches the industry for The Points Guy travel website. Some are operated by airlines and others are independently owned and managed. American Express has its own set of clubs for premium credit card holders, and its competitors, Chase and Capital One, are entering the market with their own offerings.
An array of entry options welcomes flyers, depending on the lounge. Guests might pay a daily or annual fee to gain admittance, or enter as a purchaser of a first-class ticket, or receive access as a perk that comes with specific credit cards. The lounges vary from basic windowless spaces with Wi-Fi and snacks, such as Swissport Lounge at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, to beautifully decorated clubs displaying works by local artists, rotating area-inspired cuisine and featuring views of the runways, such as the Alaska Airlines lounge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Those catering specifically to international flyers, such as the United Polaris and British Airways lounges, are more likely to be outfitted with showers, napping pods and other amenities to help travelers prepare for or recover from long flights.
Lounges at U.S. airports for mainly domestic routes began reopening in the spring and summer. American Airlines reopened 27 of its Admirals Clubs over Memorial Day weekend. All Delta Air Lines Sky Clubs reopened by early July. Thirty-two United Airlines clubs were scheduled to be open by Labor Day, with the final six opening later this month. About 40 of the 52 independently owned and operated lounges in the U.S. Priority Pass network have reopened. Hours of operation can be found on company websites.
The majority of lounges serving international passengers remain closed because of ongoing travel restrictions and still-languishing cross-border demand.
How's the food?
The dining situation varies, ranging from prepackaged items to staffed or self-serve hot meal buffets. Alaska's lounges reopened self-serve buffets, with hourly serving utensil changes and hand-sanitizing stations. Delta recently brought back hot and cold multicourse offerings such as Thai chicken dishes with rice and baked desserts. United Airlines currently provides individually wrapped items, including sausage and egg croissants in the morning.
The differences can feel stark. Steve Newton, 32, sales director of TripKit software, which helps manage business travel expenses, lives in Dallas and travels about three or four times each month. He has been to seven lounges around the country since they started reopening. At the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport's Centurion Lounge recently, Newton said he was excited to discover egg frittata, bacon and blueberry pancakes being offered, especially because the American Airlines Admirals Club he had checked out nearby "seemed to be serving mostly yogurt and cheese cubes."
What has the
All reopened lounges have advertised operational changes because of the coronavirus, adding health and safety precautions such as hand-sanitizing stations and more-robust cleaning.
At its lounges, Alaska stopped using biometric fingerprint scanners for entry, to reduce physical contact points. It also paused accepting Priority Pass holders in most of its lounges to prevent crowding.
Escape Lounges, a company that operates facilities in 11 U.S. airports, including in Reno, Nevada, and Sacramento, California, sells day passes for $45. Access is also available as a credit card perk. To reduce contact among guests, the lounges have replaced physical newspapers and magazines with digital publications accessible through a mobile app. Staff members now escort guests to specific seats in the lounge, as well as take and deliver food and beverage orders. Menus can be accessed through a QR code.
Can I get a refund for the time the lounges were closed?
Passengers who paid several hundred dollars in advance to an airline for a year of lounge access, or to a credit card company that offered lounge access as a benefit, were more likely to be given an extension to lounge access, or a substitute benefit, rather than a refund.
Credit card companies offered temporary alternative perks such as dining or streaming service credits, but it was sometimes up to the cardholder to sign up for the benefit.
Airlines generally extended lounge access but not for all of the time lost.
Priority Pass, which offers access to a global network of more than 1,300 lounge, dining and retail offerings, said it did not offer any refunds to compensate annual pass holders who purchased directly through the company, but did extend membership for three months.
I am traveling. Are lounges crowded?
As states lifted indoor-capacity restrictions, lounges followed suit and customers are streaming back in. Passenger volumes at Alaska, Delta and United clubs are close or equal to pre-COVID numbers, according to those airlines.
This is leading in some cases to the return of a pre-pandemic lounge problem: overcrowding. Jenn Taylor, 58, an executive with Nexus, a software company, traveled once a week before the pandemic and found lounges to be "an absolute oasis." Leaving for a recent business trip from her hometown, Atlanta, she stopped by the Delta Sky Club before her flight. After one look inside, she decided to grab a cookie and wait in the boarding area. "When every seat is full there is no such thing as social distance," she said of the lounge.
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What should I know about the long-term?
Lounge popularity has been spurring construction. American Express recently opened clubs at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and at Denver's International Airport. Delta opened one at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in June, and will open others at Los Angeles International and New York's LaGuardia in 2022. Alaska is opening a lounge at San Francisco International Airport.
New companies are entering the market. Capital One, whose cardholders have not previously received lounge access as a benefit, is creating its own lounges equipped with nursing rooms, shower facilities and Peloton bikes. By the end of 2022, its clubs will be open at Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver and D.C.'s Dulles airports. Chase is building its first-ever Sapphire Lounges by The Club, at Boston's Logan, LaGuardia and Hong Kong International but has not released any details on what will be inside.
I'm flying soon. Anything else I need to know?
Travelers should look online before leaving for the airport to see if their local lounge is open, and bring along extra snacks just in case, because the company websites don't list what they are serving.
Many flyers are just excited to be back, no matter what's on the menu. Nathan Love, 38, a Seattle-based business-development manager at T-Mobile who has already racked up 60,000 air miles since he was vaccinated five months ago, has spent time in Alaska, Delta and Centurion lounges recently. He said his favorite aspect has been reconnecting with bartenders, check-in staff and other crew members he recognizes from before the shutdown, and chatting with fellow travelers. "It's great to take a breath and relax and share stories," he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.