Why are most airport departure lounges so terrible? In short, it’s because the airlines want to ensure that premium flyers receive better treatment than the regular people. If everyone were allowed “amenities” like friendly staff and clean restrooms, then no one would want to pay more money to upgrade to a higher class of service.
Tim Harford has a nice essay about this in his Underground Economist book, and persuasively argues that airlines even go out of their way to provide bad service to Economy travelers so that their Premium travelers receive “better” service. In other words, says Harford, a lot of Premium flyers travel in First Class not because it’s wonderful (especially on domestic flights; it’s usually not), but out of fear of being mistreated so badly in Coach. This process naturally extends to the way that travelers are treated in airports, including access to the lounges.
Thanks to upgrades and elite status from flying so much, I often hang out in Delta’s Crown Rooms, American’s Admirals Club, and United’s Red Carpet Clubs when traveling abroad from the U.S. I’ve been in most of the major ones now, from Seattle to Atlanta and pretty much every U.S. hub city.
But don’t feel bad if you’ve never been inside, because they’re usually disappointing.
At the Red Carpet Club in San Francisco last fall, I listened to sales guys all around me make one call after another on their Bluetooth headsets. Drinks at the bar were for sale at regular prices, and while I didn’t feel like drinking at 10:00 a.m. after flying in from Asia the night before, I wondered what the benefit of paying for your drink at the airline lounge was versus paying for your drink outside in the terminal.
At most airline lounges in the U.S., mediocre filter coffee comes from a carafe, with no options for cappuccino or espresso of any kind. Meanwhile, the ever-present Starbucks is often right outside the lounge—but you can’t bring your latte inside, because the lounge allows no outside food or drink.
(Knowing this in advance, I smuggled a café au lait into the Continental club in Newark recently, but then I felt like I had somehow cheated myself instead of Continental. If they could just make decent coffee, I wouldn’t have to spend $4 outside and then feel like a reverse shoplifter trying to bring in my Styrofoam cup.)
The model of punishing Economy travelers so that Premium travelers will feel slightly better is probably not the best or most ethical way to do business, but it’s worked for a lot of bad airlines for a long time. Is there a better way? Sure, although you have to look away from the U.S. to find it.
The Best Airport Lounge in the World
A few months ago, I was in London’s Heathrow Airport waiting to fly out to Tokyo. Generally speaking, I think Heathrow is pretty much the worst major airport in the world. I have often flown to Germany or Denmark just to avoid Heathrow transit, and when traveling to the U.K. I try to land somewhere else when I can.
But on my last trip to London, I didn’t mind Heathrow at all, at least once I got past the Orwellian security staff.
That day in Heathrow, I spent about four hours hanging out in Richard Branson’s $21 million Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Clubhouse thanks to a one-way Frequent Flyer ticket I acquired through transferring rewards points from American Express. The cost for my ticket to Tokyo was $212 in airport taxes and 50,000 Frequent Flyer Miles that I didn’t even have before transferring AmEx points. Not bad for a 10-hour flight to Tokyo that included access to the world’s ultimate airport lounge.
At the airline’s flagship clubhouse in Heathrow, passengers can take advantage of complimentary spa services, get a haircut, warm up in a sauna or chill out in a whirlpool, work in a nice office space, enjoy cooked-to-order food from two restaurants, have a drink or a specialty coffee at the full bar, play billiards or retro video games, visit the rooftop garden, and probably some other stuff that I didn’t have time to notice in my four hour visit.
(Yes, I deliberately arrived at the airport four hours early, and you should too if you get the opportunity to experience this. It’s that great.)
Virgin Atlantic’s premium service, and the clientèle it attracts, is markedly different from the average U.S. airline. Here are four important characteristics of Virgin’s Clubhouse and visitors:
You can’t buy your way in. I would easily pay $50-100 for a day pass to VA’s Clubhouses, and so would thousands of other people… but you can’t. The only way in is with an Upper Class ticket, or the highest elite level in their Frequent Flyer program that usually gets you upgraded anyway. Meanwhile, Delta, Northwest, and Continental all sell day passes to their clubs for $25-40, which is usually $20-35 too much.
The dress code is super-casual. On the day of my visit, a high percentage of people in the Clubhouse were wearing jeans, t-shirts, and other casual clothes. In the average Crown Room Club, half of the travelers wear suits or other business clothes. As I spent the morning in the $21 million Heathrow lounge, I realized that some of the people had paid $5,000 or more for their plane ticket, and yet there they were wearing a t-shirt and casual shoes. They had nothing to prove. I liked that.
Life / Work balance . During my visit, I noticed that the office area was one of the least-used sections of the Clubhouse. Sure, a few people were working most of the morning, and a lot of others like me stopped in for an hour or two to review documents and clear emails, but most people were more interested in having breakfast, catching up on the news, or visiting the spa.
No one talks on the phone continuously. There weren’t many sales guys (or ladies) hanging out in the lounge. Far more common were people like the two gentlemen sitting at the breakfast table near me. One of them was flipping through the Wall Street Journal. “Here it is,” he said casually. “At least they spelled my name right this time.” The other guy nodded. “Yeah, the fact checker kept calling me after the BBC interview.”
I know a guy who is not fabulously wealthy (he is just beginning a business career and earns about $45,000 a year), but he always travels First Class. He says it helps him to meet influential people and maintain a high-achieving mindset. I was skeptical of that idea before, but after spending four hours in the Heathrow lounge, I was more convinced than ever that the road to success does not rest in making sales calls all day and hoping to make the numbers before the end of the quarter.
You’re better off finding your own way, like paying $212 for a $5,000 ticket. When you’re enjoying the world’s ultimate airline lounge before a long-haul flight, I suspect you’ll appreciate the path of non-conformity just as I have.
Photos: My free haircut in Richard Branson’s chair; the main hang-out area; breakfast cafe section; bar and waiting area (sorry for the grainy pics– I didn’t want to seem like a complete paparazzi)