An Airport Lounge Reality Check

Filed Under: Advice

Yesterday I shared a preview of Air Canada’s brand new Signature Suite in Toronto, which is an incredible new lounge. However, it has generated some interesting feedback surrounding the access requirements. Specifically, only longhaul outbound paid business class passengers get access. That means those who upgrade (either with miles or cash) and those who are redeeming miles don’t get access.

Do I like that policy? No. But I do think it’s sort of the best policy in this case for now, and in this post I wanted to discuss this topic in a bit more detail.

Airlines want more airport lounge space than they can get

Airports have seen an incredible amount of growth the past few years, as more people around the world are flying than ever before. At least in North America, just about every airline executive I’ve spoken to has said that they want more airport space at hub airports. They want more gates, they want more lounges, etc. In the case of lounges, the issue is that there’s just such limited space.

Typically when airlines open a lounge that’s smaller than it should ideally be, they’re not doing so because they’re being cheap, but rather they’re doing so because that’s all the airport would give them.

Airlines take the space they can get, and they try to make the best of it.

What’s the right approach for airlines to take?

Let’s look at two different lounge models. In both cases I think airlines are truly doing their best, and coming to very different conclusions.

American’s Flagship Lounges have generous entry requirements — all longhaul first & business class passengers, as well as oneworld Sapphire & Emerald members, get access to Flagship Lounges. That’s a lot of people. That’s great at the Flagship Lounge Miami, which is 29,000 square feet.

However, American’s Flagship Lounge JFK is significantly smaller. As reader brandote commented today:

These lounges are a vast improvement, but the new access policy is a disaster. Just go to the JFK Flagship Lounge from 5-8pm and it’s like a war torn country. Also, couldn’t agree more about the lounges being cookie cutter. In addition to furniture, all of the finishes and fixtures are exactly the same (not to mention kind of cheap…compare to a CX or QF lounge). Would be nice to see some differentiation to reflect to local area.

The problem is that I think American is doing their best. They’d love to make the lounges bigger, but they don’t have access to more space. But at the same time, isn’t it sad when a lounge is introduced and it’s compared to a “war torn country” (I’m not sure I’d quite go as far — though I’ve called it a “zoo” in the past — but I’m just sharing reader comments here)?

On the other end of the spectrum, Air Canada’s Signature Suite is just 5,500 square feet, with seating for 150 people. The lounge isn’t so small because Air Canada wants it to be that way, but rather because there’s simply no more space to build. Some readers are outraged by this policy. For example, reader Stannis says the following, and many other readers expressed a similar sentiment:

It’s disingenuous for you to promote your award booking service and then not call out airlines when they are providing your customers an inferior service. Award miles are just an alternate form of currency, you can’t have it both ways.

Look, I get the frustration at the access policy. As someone who mostly books awards and upgrades, I may never have access to this lounge myself (though when there’s a Star Alliance transatlantic business class sale I may book myself on Air Canada and route through Toronto to use this lounge).

I’ll take it a step further — I largely don’t think the policy makes sense. For example, cash upgrades on Air Canada can be quite expensive, yet those are excluded. Furthermore, Air Canada has a transatlantic joint venture, yet Lufthansa passengers don’t get access to the lounge. But I don’t think there’s a perfect system when it comes to restricting access, and they’re just starting somewhere.

But I also see this from Air Canada’s perspective. Keep in mind that they’re starting with these entry requirements, and in the future they’re open to expanding access as space permits. They’d rather be strict now and then extend access to more passengers, rather than the other way around.

What’s better — an overcrowded lounge or a restrictive lounge?

I’d love to hear what you guys think. To me the single most important feature of a lounge is that it’s a relaxing environment and doesn’t feel like the terminal.

With that in mind, would you prefer that a lounge has restrictive entry requirements and is tranquil, or a lounge with more generous entry requirements where you have to fight over seats?

I fall in the former category, and I say that as someone who doesn’t benefit from Air Canada’s policy here. For example, take a look at Amex Centurion Lounges. I’ve frequently found myself going to the Admirals Club in Dallas rather than the Centurion Lounge in Dallas, even though the Centurion Lounge has infinitely better food and drinks, and even has a spa with complimentary treatments. But it’s just consistently so crowded.

Personally I support airlines having stricter entry requirements if that’s the only way to avoid such a situation. Let’s keep in mind that nothing is being taken away from passengers here — passengers who previously had access to the Maple Leaf Lounge will continue to have access, and arguably they’ll have an enhanced experience, as the lounge won’t be as full (assuming Air Canada doesn’t make cutbacks there).

Furthermore, it’s another thing if airlines had access to more lounge space but didn’t want to pay for it, but that’s not the case here. Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport has five spaces for lounges, and all of them are occupied.

One suggestion someone made is that they should just offer access on a first come, first serve basis. To me that’s the worst possible strategy they could take. I think the one place where North American airlines perform poorly is when it comes to consistency and managing expectations. You shouldn’t only find out what your experience will be like when you arrive at the airport.

Whichever strategy airlines take, I appreciate the effort that goes into it, and the challenge that they face, because they really can’t win. Want to let as many people in as possible? People will come away thinking it’s crowded and unpleasant. Want to restrict access? People will come away thinking it’s an unfair policy. Nobody would have any issues if they just didn’t open these lounges in the first place. 😉

Overall I commend airlines in North America for just how much they’ve improved their lounge experience in the past year or so. It’s pretty awesome to think that we now have four lounges in North America run by “local” airlines that offer a la carte dining.

Where do you guys stand on this?

  1. So then should redemption rates go down? If my miles used to include lounge access but no longer do, isn’t that a devaluation? Yes, I know it’ll never happen, but they shouldn’t have it both ways. Either miles are worth something or they aren’t.

  2. Restricting access to overcrowded lounges should come at the expense of “elite” members on economy tickets, not business tickets on award or partners

  3. My concern is that this sets a precedent that other airlines will follow, even when they don’t need to. Fuel surcharges set a precedent of charging exorbitant fees on tickets back when fuel was super expensive, and when the cost of fuel went down, with the precedent set, airlines had no reason to back off the fees. I could see a trendsetter like Delta taking this a step further and not allowing free seat assignments or carry-on bags on award tickets, or offering you the seat but not the Delta One bedding or catering. Unlike Air Canada, they don’t *need* to do this, but once customers start to accept that different ways of paying for the same ticket yield different experiences, all bets are off.

  4. If a 5 star hotel dropped their nightly rate to $99 or $149 during times of low occupancy it would become a zoo. They won’t do that because it would lose exclusivity.

  5. The AC lounge decision really rubs me the wrong way — overcrowding issue or not. There should be no discernment between a paid ticket and an award ticket. You are spending a currency you earned one way or another. Put simply, an award ticket is a paid ticket. You either paid for it by actually buying the miles, by the airline deferring some of the revenue to award you the miles on previous paid tickets, or your CC company paying the airline to give you miles though a transfer arrangement. This is not a free ticket.

    I am surprised you did not have more uproar on this in your review.

  6. @ Dmodemd — So in this case, given that a larger lounge wasn’t an option, you’d prefer they didn’t have the lounge at all? Especially given that nothing is being taken away, and if anything other people have access to a less crowded lounge than before. I’m not asking rhetorically, I’m genuinely curious if you (or others) prefer that.

  7. In my opinion when airlines create a limited capacity high end nice lounge above their current offerings, the correct business strategy would be to sell admission for $500 per visit (similar to the way AA sells 5 star travel assistance package, but comps it for true VIPs) and on an individual per visit basis provide comp access to the lounge. You could comp all full fare business/first class paying customers, or customers with a ticket valued over a certain price like $5000 and comp selected individuals who spend 6 figures with the airline or control 8 figure company travel budgets. In this way you align free access to those who make the greatest contribution to the airline’s bottom line, and you offer everyone else access at an extremely lucrative price. It also allows you to float the amount of access up and down depending on expected capacity, without improperly setting a customers level of expectation.

  8. Doesn’t AA plan to start to shift some of their international flights over to PHL from JFK? That could certainly help with the overcrowding in that FL lounge. Flip side is early in the AM its incredibly quite. I have a 3.5 hour layover there from 6am on next month and when I have been there in that time its really nice.

  9. I agree with Lucky 100%. Making a lounge for paid customers is absolutely fine with me. It’s the same concept as blocking first class space from point redemptions. If the airline wants to limit the number of people in their lounge they absolutely have the right to do so, I’d prefer an exclusive lounge over a zoo any day.

  10. @Jordan (windbag miles), “My concern is that this sets a precedent that other airlines will follow”

    Air Canada isn’t the first to do this, as I noted in my own post about this lounge when Singapore Airlines opened the Private Room in Singapore they followed a similar model with only paid first welcome and no awards (and eventually loosened the policy).

  11. I see nothing wrong with Air Canada’s decision. I fly business class both paid (normally through work) or via points (normally personal). They aren’t taking anything away from award ticket passengers, rather, they are just not opening a section of the airport to them which I see as a totally fine business decision. There will be people who don’t like it and that’s fine.

    Where the slippery slope begins is if they take away standard services from award ticket passengers such as reduced quality meals, no champagne, etc.

  12. Perhaps they should restrict access during “rush hours. ” I frequently connect on the East Coast before a TATL flight and most of these depart within a few hours of each other and the lounges are super crowded. I can’t speculate on the best formula to use in restricting access but I’m certain the airlines know the traffic patterns and numbers and can come up with a fair solution.

    @David S – I don’t subscribe to the theory that there should be a “means” test applied to J ticket price, especially at the expense of other non-premium cabin passengers with a higher EQD or worse how much airline purchase power an individual controls for a given company. If you pay for a J ticket, you should have access, period.

  13. The Globe and Mail newspaper reports that Signature Suite customers can be driven from Terminal 1 check-in to the lounge in BMW 7 Series cars. For now it’s random and they only have 4 cars, but plan to increase that to 20 cars.
    A subscription is required but they give you a few freebies a month. But here’s a cut and paste of the relevant part:
    “One step is how international business travelers get to the current Maple Leaf lounge and the new lounge. For the moment, Air Canada offers passengers rides on a random basis, using four BMW 7-Series sedans so some of them can avoid the noise and bustle of walking through Terminal 1.”

  14. Isn’t the real problem that the standard lounge options are unsatisfactory?
    AC does have enough space to provide all status and partner premium passengers – it’s just currently being used as a sad Maple Leaf Lounge.
    If AC, and the other North American airlines creating an acceptable tier of lounge over their sad regular offerings, want to be genuine they would simply have decent offerings to begin with.
    To me it’s the increasing stratification that’s most upsetting. Why is this the case in North America when I can go to a fantastic normal Business/status lounge in Asia Pacific or Europe, as a given, instead of as an exclusive value-add for not even the highest status pax?
    In AC’s case, YYZ is their main hub and overall the ground experience is pitiful – T3 is quicker and more coherent.

  15. Well, first off, you said “initial” access in your previous post. I expect them to do some research and evaluation. And I expect that will eventually open the lounge to award ticket holders.

    That aside, I do find it mind-boggling that it’s paid longhaul business passengers only. How many business class seats are there on AC’s longhauls from Toronto every day? How are they filled? I don’t expect anyone to have the answers to these questions, but I do wonder how many people will actually get to use this lounge. And I wonder how many more would be able to use it with awards factored in. It just seems like such a small group to begin with (AC intercontinental passengers in business) so I don’t totally get it.

  16. This whole thread is a non-starter, potentially on both sides – airline and customer. Since when does AC even make significant business class award inventory available?

  17. How much overcrowding would including award tickets actually cause? They’re already subject to award availability, so I can’t imagine it would be a huge number of people. By disallowing reward flights and upgrades what they’re really saying is that the lounge isn’t even large enough to service their long haul business capacity. What percentage of their long haul J is paid right now? If they had a day with an unusually large number of paid bookings would the lounge be overcrowded already?

  18. On any given AC longhaul flight, how many passengers are flying in J on an award? 2 MAYBE 4? Seems like AC decided to limit a group of passengers that is really inconsequential. Want to keep the lounge from overcrowding? Limit the elite members who are flying coach.

  19. The hard part for me is that I have been Super Elite 100K for the past 11 years and I go out of my way to fly AC as I am American living in Southern Cal and I will always need to leave earlier in my work day to catch the AC connection in YYZ. My company’s policy is not to pay for Biz so I do pay for flexible economy and use my eupgrades to move into Biz class. I give AC a ton of money every year and now I can’t use my hard earned eupgrades to gain access to a great dining experience rubs me the wrong way. I would rather eat before I board so I can go straight to sleep for the next 6-7 hours to Europe. I hope AC reconsiders this practice.

  20. The more logical thing to do would have been to classify this as a First Class lounge with special access for Air Canada full fare biz passengers.

    I think if you are going to create different classes of business class with different perks and amenities that should be more clearly segmented and made clear when people book and make travel decisions. Like International Long Haul Biz (no access) and International Long Haul Biz Super Special We Love You (access). Just better communication to avoid disappointment that’s all. Right now the average traveler is not going to understand why they were refused for being in business class fare code x versus y.

  21. I think the policy is fair and makes a lot of sense at opening. I hope they’ll change it long-term.

    From my perspective, airlines should set an entry policy that ensures that the lounge is only more than 80% full during periods of extreme demand and no less than 20% full during periods when demand is most slack. Of course, there will be rare occurrences when it’s more full (ie, during storms or major delay periods) and less full (right at opening, right before close), but I think that’s generally a good rule.

    It’s better for there to be restrictive rules that upset some people than easy access that ruins the experience for everyone.

    The Centurion lounges, for example, have become unusable, and despite the fact that I fly out of MIA weekly, I don’t carry the Platinum card anymore.

    And, as for the idea that award tickets should be treated the same as revenue pax, are people arguing that there should be unlimited award seats on every flight? Certainly no one with half a brain is suggesting that. Likewise, should there be unlimited lounge access for everyone on an award ticket? I think not.

  22. The elephant in the room here is the feeling, among people who paid real money for a J ticket, that “freeloaders” get the same benefits. I can understand that the carrier wants to provide one valuable benefit to premium revenue travellers. I’m not among them, so I won’t get into this particular lounge. But I’ve got PriorityPass, I usually fly on longhaul J awards, I get some nice lounges along the way and overall I’m not complaining. Everyone who flies J internationally from YYZ gets into Maple Leaf Lounge, which provides comfort, showers, hot food buffet. Pay for your ticket and redeem next time, you’ll get the food brought to your table.

  23. @Jordan (windbag miles), I believe Tim Clark at Emirates has been making noise for some time about “unbundled” business class fares that don’t include the same amenities? It seems probable this will get introduced at some stage, somewhere, though I agree I don’t like the idea.

    @justin h, 5 star hotels routinely drop to absurdly low rates during low occupancy periods in most cities (outside of the global hubs like London and NYC). Just happened to notice the other day that the Mandarin Oriental in D.C. is sub 200-bucks a night around Xmas in a few weeks. They don’t become “zoos” when they do this.

    There’s no good answer here as I would consider lounge access a key benefit of medium and top tier FF status on most international airlines and removing or restricting that would be a huge devaluation of most loyalty programs. In general I applaud what AA has been doing with flagship lounges; so what if the JFK lounge gets too crowded for a couple hours a day? AA is working to give a significant slice of their customers a much better experience. Rather have airlines invest in the space they can, and keep access for mid and upper tier FFs. Worry about overcrowding later.

  24. @lucky “For example, cash upgrades on Air Canada can be quite expensive, and your fare class is even updated, yet those are excluded.”

    No, they don’t with Air Canada. With AC you are always credited miles at whatever they were purchased at. If you pay $720 to upgrade from a Tango Economy fare class on a domestic flight (25% of your miles credited) to go to Business Class, you’ll get credited at 25%.

    It’s actually really annoying, and the reason I’m less prone to upgrade on AC than say on Swiss.

  25. I get the impression that few of the people complaining have actually been to YYZ. The existing international Maple Leaf Lounge is about two minutes away from the new lounge, and it’s not bad. There’s everything you’d want to drink, pretty good buffet food at mealtimes and while it gets crowded at peak times, I’ve always been able to find a seat. If they want to give a new perk to people who’ve paid thousands of dollars for a seat, OK.
    What I don’t get is the usage model. If there’s a 30 minute prep time for the sit down meals, that suggests you’d get to the lounge at least 2 hrs before flight time to allow time to order and to eat before boarding time. Do the people who pay for biz seats really want to spend that much time at the airport? The main use I can see is on shortish routes like YYZ-LHR where if you eat in the lounge, you can try to go to sleep right after takeoff.

  26. I’m a huge advocate of a more restricted access lounge policy. I want an airport lounge to be a place to relax before boarding.

    I’d be delighted to have ALL airlines have a dedicated lounge for those who have actually paid for their business/first class seat. Not because these people are any better than those on award flights or flying economy buy have status…. I just think there are so many passengers with ‘status’ the lounges are regularly overcrowded. This detracts from the overall experience for everyone.

  27. Realistically, how many J Award passengers, flying on AC metal, are there going to be at any given time? The comparison to Centurion lounges is apples and oranges as anyone with a credit card can come in, along with their friends/family, regardless of their airline, much less cabin class.

    An AC 777-300ER has 40 J seats, assuming the flight is full. And not all of them are even going to have time to use the lounge. How many of those passengers are flying on awards? I don’t know the answer, but I really doubt it’s anywhere near 20. Is it reasonable to assume that the handful of passengers flying on J awards is going to cause Centurion level overcrowding?
    If so I would cut AC some slack on this, but I just really doubt it.

    As others have said, award tickets are not “free” tickets. They have been purchased with miles earned thru paid flights, and credit card spend. To then tell someone using those miles to, yes, purchase a ticket with them that they are second class citizens is down right insulting.

    I’ve gone out of my way to earn awards on SQ, and LH, because one of the perks of that was access to the Private Room, and the FCT. I have no interest in flying Air France because as a non-elite I can never obtain a FC award with them no wonder how many miles I have. I’m starting to feel the same way the same about AC.

  28. Delta SkyClub at MSP is always a zoo. Either everyone is a DM or everyone has an Amex Platinum. It gets to a point where if you stand up to grab food you lose your seat.

  29. @Ben, I think I’d lean towards @Dmodemd’s thoughts. The airline knows how many business class passengers us its facilities on a daily basis. If AC cannot provide facilities to serve all those passengers in a given cabin, it should wait until it can. Miles are a currency sold by the airline and to discriminate against passengers who use them is unfair. I’d argue that in the long run this will create more of an inconsistent experience for travelers with an added level of complexity based on ticket purchase.

  30. @John Levine I think the lounge is mostly aimed at connecting passengers, not those originating in YYZ. If you look at AC’s recent sales and their overall strategy, they are positioning themselves as hub / 4th / premium option for US traffic headed to Europe or Asia. The investment in their business product alone is proof (all flatbed, mostly reverse herringbone), but this reinforces it. They want people to connect from LAX through to London or PHL through to Hong Kong, with the idea that their hubs provide better experiences than the other connecting options, and for a reasonable price.

    @Robert Hanson You’re right about rewards but not about the percentage of non-revenue (or less-revenue). Things will vary per flight, but I would say that a significant portion of those 40 seats are going to be filled by those using eUpgrades or last-minute upgrades/bids.

  31. Bad policy. Sets a poor precedence and I’m not convinced that it even significantly reduces crowding. How many people even redeem international AC award flights? I sure don’t given their subpar service compared to most other airlines, and their surcharges.

    Since I never redeem for international AC flights this policy doesn’t directly affect me, but it sets a poor precedence for award tickets so I don’t agree with it.

    What’s next? Only J, C, D business fares get access and Z,P business fares don’t?

  32. @EChid If that’s the case, I’d say the handful of mileage award passengers should be accommodated. The eUpgrades and last minute pay ups not so much. Most of us spend months or years, and considerable funds, acquiring the miles for a J award. And then probably have to do considerable work searching for award availability; maybe even distort our travel dates to use it. We have far more earned a full J experience than someone who just bought an economy ticket for the days they wanted to travel, hoping to score an easy upgrade at the last minute. And that goes more than double for non-rev employees.

  33. C’on. I hope you’re at least being bribed by Air Canada to post something like this.
    Crowding is bad (c).
    Excluding pax on award and upgrade (cash upgrades) tickets from access is simply cheap and has nothing to do with crowding (even you trying to persuade us in an opposite).

    There are the same 30/32/36 J seats on a plane. If those 30 seats are sold for cash, then all are welcomed and no issues with crowding. If 26 out of 30 sold for cash and 4 out of 30 are awards, then these 4 pax really make up a whole crowding deal?! A joke.

    I mean AC in their best times open a couple of J award seats, meaning there are literally a handful pax departing YYZ on award tickets daily. These folks won’t be the reason for crowding. This is pretty disgusting move on an airline side that should be called out. I actually can’t recall any other airline that would offer a ticketed passenger an inferior product just because they were on awards tickets. Maybe LX is that is doing the same with a paid pax on a UA flight number which is plain ridiculous.

  34. @Robert Hanson and Denis: I’ll concede that the rewards-based exclusion seems the silliest of them, and the least fair. Usually rewards fares give you *almost* everything you get on revenue (although recall that Asiana, for example, used to provide an exclusive limo service for First revenue-only pax, so this is not the first time we’ve seen this). AC’s rewards are already poor-enough value that they clearly don’t care to add anymore to it. You’d think they would just be better to limit space, which has never been very available anyway. I’m not sure saying we’ve “earned it” makes sense, since it’s a program that they (through Aeroplan) control and they can taketh and giveth pretty much as they wish (our only power is essentially to vote with our feet in that case).

    AC has long made it clear that revenue J class passengers transiting to/from the US are their priority, and everyone else is just much less profitable gravy. This move doesn’t surprise me.

  35. If you could only get points from flying that would be a different case, but there are so many mileage millionaires that they pretty much have to do this.

    It just doesn’t make sense that the client that pays for business regularly wont have access on his once a year award ticket/upgrade.

  36. I’d hesitate to call this move “cheap” given that adding a few more passengers to the lounge isn’t going to cost AC that much at all. As a poster pointed out with Asiana, other airlines have “discriminated” against reward passengers before by only providing shuttle service to revenue.

    I think this move is smart… if they find there isn’t overcrowding there’s room to adjust this down the road. However, if they started by allowing upgrades and mileage passengers in and then had to reverse the policy that would be significantly more unpopular.

    Overall this was a great post and I appreciate the insight into the way an airline plans their lounges.

  37. Do to the high cost of the rental space at airports. Why Don’t airlines open a big lounge off-site? Meaning have a very nice building that is a mile away from the airport where you could check in and check baggage space for 1000-1500 people or more. Maybe even have parking for senior level customers. Have a shuttle every 15 minutes to the airport.

  38. Eh, it isn’t the end of the world. If they were offering absolutely no lounge access of any sort for people who are upgrading/redeeming miles/etc, then yeah, it would be an issue. Think of this as an extra perk for people who pay cash for their premium cabin seat.

  39. Lucky, one of your later paragraphs that discussed that nothing is being taken away from people booking award tickets hits the nail on the head!

    I am pro restricted lounge access in order to maintain crowd control as long as it doesn’t represent a downgrade in access for passengers. In this case award passengers have all of the same access they had previously. No harm, no foul.

  40. I don’t believe the airlines song and dance: “……but rather they’re doing so because that’s all the airport would give them.”

    When designing a lounge for max size, it’s true designing horizontal will take up more gate
    space. It’s easier to design vertical.

  41. The Flagship lounges tend to be crowded (JFK; LHR; LAX) but not a zoo. Nothing like the Admirals Club at LAX which IS a zoo. The Qantas club at LAX and BA’s First Class lounge at LHR are excellent; difficult to get a seat at the BA club though. My problem is that American has stopped issuing gate passes so that I can use the Admirals Club in another terminal when I fly on a different airline – extremely annoying. Joined AmEx for the Centurion Club to avoid this.

  42. I think the restrictive model is the best option – make access to the lounges tied to membership (which you can purchase with miles or money) and allow one day passes to be purchased for special scenarios like long haul flights or extended layovers. By using that model, it is accessible for everyone but probably won’t be overcrowded as many people will not be willing to pay (with miles or money) to get the access.

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