Considered important to an airline's brand, carriers are spending millions to improve the comfort and services of their airport lounges.
Having weathered the 2008 global downturn, many airlines have begun investing millions of dollars in upgrading their lounges, installing special armchairs and offering premium liquors, new food selections and, in the case of one, free hairdressing services.
One impetus for the improvements, said Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of travel-research company Atmosphere Research Group, is that most U.S.-based carriers are now part of global airline alliances.
“The airlines have to make sure their clubs are offering something close to what their partners are offering,” Harteveldt said.
In addition, he said, the airlines have been looking over their shoulders and seeing new competitors.
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“The Air France hub in Paris is no longer just competing with Lufthansa and British Airways,” he said. “It’s competing against carriers in the Gulf and Asia.”
Harteveldt called airport lounges “one of the most important branding elements for an airline.”
He added: “Even though some airlines have begun to improve their planes’ passenger cabins, there’s only so much they can do. They have much more flexibility in how they design their lounges.”
At the same time, he said, airlines based in the United States “know their lounges must be tempting enough to justify spending from $50 for a day pass, up to several hundred dollars a year for an annual membership.”
Peter Vlitas, senior vice president for airline sales and marketing for Protravel International, a New York-based travel-management company, said the improvements were also an outgrowth of efforts to woo top-paying travelers.
“Airlines understand that in order to service high-yield, first- and business-class clients, they need to offer a complete airport-to-airport experience, not only in the air but also on the ground.”
Since November, Cathay Pacific has refurbished a lounge in Frankfurt, Germany, and opened its first lounge in the United States, in San Francisco.
The lounge in San Francisco features the carrier’s noodle bar and special chairs, with a lacquered shell, leather seat, table, power socket, coat hook and privacy screen, providing a convenient space to eat, work and relax.
Cathay Pacific has also renovated the business-class section of the Wing, its flagship lounge in Hong Kong, with an expanded noodle bar and a new coffee loft that serves specialty coffees and freshly baked pastries.
The first-class section of the Wing will close soon for renovation; when it reopens late this year, it will feature new Champagne and cocktail bars.
Lufthansa recently introduced a new design for its lounges, after its research found “the basic need for a comfortable seat is of outstanding importance” to travelers, said Thomas Gesing, the airline’s head of product management, lounge services.
The airline has thus developed a new leather armchair for its refurbished Senator and business-class lounges in Dubai and Boston.
Other new lounges will open this year and next year in Delhi; Berlin; Frankfurt; and Newark, N.J. The new lounge design also includes free wireless Internet access, an office, a bistro and a relaxation zone.
Qantas is opening new lounges in Singapore and Hong Kong at the end of this year. It is also almost tripling the size of its first- and business-class lounges in Los Angeles, with completion scheduled by 2014.
As in the Australian airports, new lounges will feature decor by the Australian designer Marc Newson, who also designed the interior of Qantas’ A380 aircraft; and menus developed by the chef Neil Perry, from Sydney.
Virgin Atlantic will open a new Clubhouse lounge at Kennedy International Airport in New York in March that will be twice the size of the airline’s current lounge there and be located beyond security, unlike its predecessor.
It will also offer free hairdressing services by Bumble and Bumble.
Last September, Virgin Atlantic opened the Grey Goose Loft, a bar on the upper level of its Heathrow Clubhouse in London that serves cocktails made from Grey Goose vodkas free of charge.
Similarly, Delta last October announced a luxury bar concept for its domestic Sky Clubs. The bars, which will ultimately be available at 24 clubs, sell Diageo premium wines and spirits, including Jose Cuervo tequila, Johnnie Walker blended scotches and Moet & Chandon Champagne, as well as special cocktails, like a Bloody Mary made with Ketel One vodka. Alcoholic beverages served elsewhere in all Delta lounges continue to be free.
Harteveldt said both Grey Goose and Diageo are probably subsidizing the special Virgin Atlantic and Delta bars, through sponsorship fees or in other ways, to get “exposure to, and trial by, a very relevant audience.”
Since 2010, American Airlines has refurbished both its Admirals Club and Flagship Lounge at Heathrow and refurbished lounges in Boston and Tokyo and at Kennedy and Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington. It also opened a new lounge in San Francisco.
In addition, the airline has converted a lounge in Miami for use by its premium travelers and those of its fellow Oneworld alliance carriers British Airways and Iberia.
It will refurbish an existing club and open a new club at La Guardia this year.