Sep 22, 2023 - Economy

Airport lounges are getting nicer than ever, but harder to access

Illustration of a fainting couch shaped like an airplane flying in the sky with clouds

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Airport lounges are once again becoming premium products, with higher barriers to entry but amenities more often matching the price of admission.

The big picture: As travel rebounds post-pandemic, airport lounges are getting more popular — leading to crowds they weren't designed to accommodate, and frustration among "elite" travelers not used to sharing those spaces with families headed to Orlando for school break.

What's happening: Airlines' answer to all that crowding? Making it harder to get in.

  • Delta Air Lines, for example, recently toughened up the rules for accessing its Sky Clubs via credit card perks.
  • Lower-tier cardholders will no longer get complimentary access, while others will be limited to a certain number of annual passes — unless, in some cases, they spend or fly a particular amount.
  • Those changes are meant to ensure "that we're taking care of our most premium customers with our most premium assets, one of those being the Sky Club," Dwight James, Delta's senior vice president of customer engagement and loyalty, told CNBC.

Backdrop: Delta's changes come as airlines have been upgrading their lounges — and rolling out super-swanky premium versions — in recent years.

  • United Airlines' Polaris lounges, for instance, offer luxe comfort, but are accessible pretty much only to those flying internationally in business class.
  • American Airlines, meanwhile, is opening what NerdWallet calls a "dreamy" new Admirals Club at Washington-National Airport.

At the same time, credit card companies are looking to make a splash with fancy lounges at airports nationwide.

  • Capital One recently unveiled a classy new lounge at Dulles International Airport, with sit-down meals, grab-and-go snacks, family rooms and more.
  • "We felt like when we designed our lounges, we could figure out a way to serve customers who have longer to spend who maybe want a more fulsome, celebratory kind of indulgent experience — or customers who just have 20 minutes and want to swing through and grab something on their way," said Jenn Scheurich, head of Capital One travel, lounge and retail experience.
  • Chase and American Express have also been opening up premium branded lounges, with more to come — salvos in a broader "perk war" among credit card issuers.

Yes, but: While some offer day passes, credit card lounges are typically intended for higher-tier cardholders, who often pay considerable fees for perk-laden cards.

  • Chase's Sapphire Lounges, for instance, are meant for those with Sapphire Reserve cards ($550 annual fee).

Reality check: Many people — especially frequent travelers — still have credit card-, loyalty- or membership-based lounge access, points out David Slotnick, senior aviation business reporter at travel site The Points Guy.

  • Compared to past decades, more people are now able to "get a credit card and pay $500 a year for it and get a lot of benefits," including lounge access, Slotnick tells Axios.
  • "As opposed to before, when you really had to be a frequent traveler and buy a membership specifically for that lounge."

The bottom line: The best airport spaces are once again becoming more exclusive, catering to big spenders and frequent flyers, and pushing out the economy crowd.

Go deeper