- Airlines are adapting their premium lounges to the new realities of pandemic flying as their top travellers remain largely grounded.
- Each airline has its own approach but all are centered around health and safety first followed by a gradual ramp-up of the amenities that flyers expect.
- We visited the airport lounges of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines to see how the lounge experience has changed.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Access to airport lounges is a top perk for frequent flyers and those who pay top dollar to sit in the premium cabins of an airliner.
The exclusive spaces not only offer a reprieve from a terminal’s hustle and bustle but come stocked with complimentary food and beverages, comfortable seating options, and free WiFi, at the very least. Their allure is also enough to entice travellers into spending hundreds on annual memberships or credit cards that offer access, while giving them a reason to head to the airport early.
As any lounge manager will confirm, it wasn’t uncommon in pre-pandemic times for a flyer to arrive countless hours before their flight just to take advantage of all the lounge has to offer. American Airlines’ Flagship Lounges and United’s Polaris lounge, for example, offered complimentary sit-down dining with multi-course meals to eligible patrons.
But the pandemic has changed the mandate of these lounges, especially as the business travellers and wealthy international jet setters that once filled the spaces have largely been grounded due to forces outside of their control.
The airline lounge now serves as merely another place to wait before a flight. However, as we settle into what will undoubtedly be a protracted recovery for aviation, airlines are examining their lounges differently and are slowly bringing back or modifying the luxuries flyers once enjoyed.
Here’s what it’s like to visit an airport lounge during the pandemic.
To get a sense of what lounging is truly like during the pandemic, I visited three New York area airline lounges: the American Airlines Admirals Club in Terminal 8 at John F. Kennedy International Airport…
The Delta Sky Club in Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport…
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And the United Club in Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport.
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All three airlines have a sizeable presence in New York/Newark and see thousands of daily passengers in normal times. The importance of these bases means these lounges welcoming some of the big three’s most valued customers.
Starting at the lounge check-in, all three airlines have opted to install plexiglass partitions to separate guests from staff.
These partitions can be found across the airport and serve as an extra layer of protection in addition to face coverings.
Once at the counter, some airlines are encouraging passengers to aid the check-in process by scanning their own ticket at these machines placed on top of the desk.
Doing so further reduces interaction between passengers and staff, with the trend of self-scanning a boarding pass becoming common at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints and when boarding.
All three airlines have also installed hand sanitizer stations near the check-in desk.
Some have banners outlining the changes that flyers can expect in the lounge.
Both American and Delta had these banners outlining new policies and rules.
United’s didn’t have a specific outline of the lounge’s changes but did have this banner outlining its new overall health and safety policies and procedures.
On the floor, patrons will also notice social distancing reminders leading them into the lounges.
Once in the lounge, the layout might look different to a traveller since their last visit, especially if that visit was before the pandemic.
Delta and United, for example, have removed and rearranged furniture to account for reduced capacity.
Delta is removing 40% of its seats in the Terminal 4 lounge and will cap entry to 80% of that reduced number. Entry will then be one in, one out.
United’s Newark lounge will only accept 202 patrons at a time, down from an original capacity of around 400.
And American is accepting less than 100 in its JFK Airport lounge.
American has opted to place placards at seats that it is blocking instead of removing them outright.
Delta has also placed placards to block seats and spaces that it couldn’t remove from the lounge.
Placards throughout American and Delta’s lounges also remind passengers to maintain distance and wear masks during their stay.
All three airlines require mask usage when not eating or drinking.
United, however, is not going the placard route, relying instead on overhead announcements and digital signage in an attempt to reduce paper and plastic usage.
Cleaning is also a top priority in all three lounges.
Lounge staff is tasked with cleaning seating areas as soon as a guest has left.
They can be found constantly roving in the lounges to clean even the most minor spill.
Peckish passengers will quickly realise that complimentary food is still on offer, though it’s likely not the same as what they once experienced.
Pre-packaged food has largely replaced the hot food buffet and any hot items being served are usually managed by lounge staff as opposed to self-serve.
Here’s a look at American Airlines’ breakfast spread with pre-packaged items like bagels, cereals, hard-boiled eggs, muffins, and fruit on offer.
But the airline does have some hot food items behind the bar including soups…
And made-to-order avocado toast with all the fixings.
United is sticking largely to pre-packaged snack items like chips, cookies, brownies, and nuts.
Each mealtime also has a special item available like a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly Smucker’s Uncrustables for lunch, and cup noodles for dinner.
Lounge staff will also come around with yogurt, a selection of cheeses, and muffins during peak times.
The Delta Sky Club is probably closest to normal with a sprawling hot and cold food buffet.
Hot food included soups…
And a macaroni and cheese bar.
While cold items included antipasto, cheese cubes, and hummus.
The fresh food options were accompanied by a selection of snacks…
Thirsty flyers can rejoice as full-service bars are also open in all three lounges.
House beer, wines, and liquors are typically complimentary with cocktails and more intricate drinks available for a price.
Each lounge also has plexiglass partitions installed at the bars.
Delta went the extra mile to plaster its drink menu on the partition.
American went the QR code route, allowing patrons to access the menu through their mobile devices.
Soft beverage machines are also largely open in lounges, with United’s multi-drink machine capable of being operated via a device through a QR code scan.
American, on the other hand, has placed its drink machine out of order until that capability is installed.
And Delta’s lounge still had the old fashioned soft drink machine that doesn’t require touch.
Coffee machines are also accessible in the American and Delta lounges, with their screens cleaned regularly and coated with a disinfectant in the former.
United, on the other hand, moved its coffee machines behind the bar to reduce touchpoints.
Business travellers can find the same amenities available to them, notably the printer and copying machine.
Workstations remain largely empty during the day, however, as business travel continues its slump.
An aspect of the lounge experience that has been universally disavowed during the pandemic is the shower.
Airline and non-airline lounges alike have temporarily closed their lounges as a precaution.
New additions can also be found in some of the lounges. In the American lounge, new foot handles have been installed so flyers don’t have to touch the handle after washing their hands.
Meanwhile, Delta is trialing new tech in the form of a UV device cleaner.
A quick clean takes only 15 seconds when a deep clean takes one minute.
So, are these lounges worth arriving extra early at the airport to visit? That depends on the lounge.
Markedly shorter wait times at security and less traffic on the roads has allowed travellers to cut out the safety margins in their airport arrival plans and skip the lounge altogether. And they aren’t really missing out on much by doing so.
As with nearly everything during the pandemic, airport lounging now is not what it once was. Each airline is taking a different approach to providing some sense of normal but flyers can expect a modified experience at all three with reduced offerings across the board.
Out of the three visits, the Delta Sky Club came the closest to offering an actual meal and even then, it wasn’t something to arrive extra early to enjoy. Rather, a visit to the lounge might be a bonus if one happens to arrive early, is enduring a flight delay, or has a long connection.
All three airlines will continue opening more lounges as demand dictates but the timeline for doing so is hazy as daily passenger numbers are still a fraction of what they were in 2019. More amenities will also be brought back as more flyers return.
United Airlines, for example, is in the midst of evaluating its food offering as the winter season and is awaiting the return of international travel to reopen its Polaris lounges.
A resurgence of international travel and premium flyers will likely see the lounges restored to their former glory. That’s when flyers can starting making plans for extended lounge visits.
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