Airplanes are packed, and the lounges also seem to be crowded

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A packed house at Delta’s newest Sky Club at LAX.
A packed house at Delta’s newest Sky Club at LAX. Photo Credit: Matthew Klint

Long lines. New limits on guest access. New arrival time restrictions.

Welcome to the airport lounge experience of 2022.

"It's not one airline in particular. United, Delta, Alaska, they are all packed," said Matthew Klint, a frequent traveler who authors the Live and Let's Fly blog. "It's also the credit card lounges. And its overseas, as well. Turkish, Lufthansa, BA."

Klint, who says he has been to more than 30 domestic and international airport lounges since May, describes walking out of an American Express Centurion Lounge in Dallas because he couldn't get a seat. 

He endured packed conditions at Delta's new Sky Club in Los Angeles International's Terminal 3 in August. And he said that crowds also dogged him at LAX's Star Alliance Lounge in the Bradley International Terminal, where even the normally quiet patio was full on late-summer visit. 

During a recent visit to Newark's new United Club lounge, which is one of the carrier's largest, Klint said that United had posted a sign saying that it was not allowing single-visit passholders. And he says those same signs were the norm all summer at the Denver United Club.

Perception or reality?

Little public data exists to confirm Klint's sense that lounge crowding is worse than ever. Collinson, the company whose Priority Pass network includes more than 100 U.S. lounges and pass-affiliated restaurants, said visits in July remained 7% below July 2019, and Priority Pass has added more than a dozen U.S. lounges and restaurants during that time, according to Jeremy Dalkoff, Collinson's vice president of partnerships for the Americas. 

A sign at a United Club at Newark Airport’s Terminal C in early August.
A sign at a United Club at Newark Airport’s Terminal C in early August. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin

Among the numerous Priority Pass lounge partners are British Airways and Air France as well as Airport Dimensions, which has 21 independent U.S. lounge locations. 

Collinson isn't the only lounge operator reporting manageable attendance in recent months.

Though it didn't offer data, American Airlines said crowding hasn't been a problem at Admirals Club and Flagship Lounge locations.

"We've been in good shape over the summer, with multiple clubs in places like our hubs; that's been helpful," said spokeswoman Leah Rubertino.

United said its primary crowding challenges are related to club closures. The carrier cited as an example the Newark United Club location in Terminal C3 while the Terminal C1 club is closed for construction. In Denver, United also has two lounges under construction. 

Delta didn't comment on attendance at its lounges. 

Still, new policies put in place by some large lounge operators are telling. In June, Delta began limiting Sky Club entry to three hours prior to a scheduled flight while making the clubs off-limits to flyers who have arrived at their final destination.

Meanwhile, American Express will begin charging Platinum cardholders $50 per guest at Centurion lounges beginning in February, ending the current policy of allowing two free guests. Free guests will still be allowed for cardholders who spend $75,000 in a calendar year. 

Lounge construction is also a sign of burgeoning demand. Dalkoff said Collinson expects approximately 15 new lounges to join its U.S. network by 2024. 

Two credit card issuers have also entered the lounge space. Capital One opened its first lounge last fall at Dallas/Fort Worth and has lounges in the offing at Denver and Washington Dulles. Chase will soon launch a network of Chase Sapphire lounges, with locations in the works at Boston Logan, New York LaGuardia, Hong Kong, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas. 

Why the crowds, why now?

"I can say that lounges are incredibly crowded," said Sally French, who analyzes loyalty programs for the personal finance website NerdWallet.

One reason, she said, was airport chaos this past summer.

"The days of breezing through the airport in 10 minutes are gone, given unpredictable lines at airport security, even with TSA PreCheck," French said. "Many travelers are finding it better to get to the airport well in advance and hang out in the lounge rather than stress about cutting it too close and perhaps missing their flight."

Another primary cause of lounge crowding is the ease of obtaining lounge access, which in many cases can be purchased as a one-time pass. It's also a perk of many premium and airline co-branded credit cards. American, Delta and United all reported record co-branded credit card acquisitions in the second quarter. 

"It's a two-edged sword," said Klint. "They keep pushing credit cards, and one of the benefits is the promised lounges."

He said the only solution to lounge crowding is more lounge construction. 

"It's either that or limiting access even more," Klint said, referring to policies that Delta and American Express are adding.

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