Just a few years ago, the comforts that could be found in high-end airport lounges were pretty much the same all over the world. Comfortable chairs (other than the molded-plastic variety); plasma-screen TVs; an open bar; free Internet access…these were the amenities that first- and business-class travelers could expect to find, from New York to Paris to Sydney.
No longer. In these times of heretofore-unheard-of airplane luxuries (fully reclining massage chairs, sleep pods, in-flight manicures), airport lounges have had to step up their game, too. In fact, with amenities like full-fledged spas, private nap rooms, and meals catered by celebrity chefs, airport lounges have become less of a place to kill time and more of a place to linger. Welcome to the age of the happy layover.
Travel-industry insiders see the evolution of the airport lounge as a natural phenomenon. Premium travelers now "have higher expectation…and expect a higher level of personalized service," says Breda Walls, a customer service executive in the Americas for British Airways. Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president of New York-based luxury travel agency Valerie Wilson Travel, agrees: "Lounges are no longer just a spot for travelers to wait in between connections; they’ve become an oasis away from the masses."
Of course, airlines are acting in their own self-interest by furnishing their customers with massage therapists, cigar lounges, and private concierges to arrange restaurant reservations and theater tickets. After all, flights are fuller than ever, and delays are rampant—so to keep travelers satisfied, airlines need to keep raising the comfort bar. Part of this equation, suggests Susan Weissberg, chief executive of Wylly’s Professional Travel in Coral Gables, Florida, is the increasing popularity of private planes: "If the airlines want to keep high-end travelers as customers, they have to cater to them or risk losing them to private jets," she says.
That’s certainly a risk the airlines know. In Sydney’s first-class Qantas Lounge, travelers can dine on cuisine from Aussie chef Neil Perry (of Rockpool fame), while business travelers in the American Airlines’ Flagship Lounge at JFK Airport in New York can send documents to the lounge’s printers via e-mail, so their printouts are waiting when they arrive.
And the comfort level for airport lounges hasn’t topped out yet—at least not if two new developments from Lufthansa and Qatar Airways are any indication. Both these carriers unveiled freestanding lounges in their home airports in the past few years—oases that are sequestered away in their own buildings for maximum seclusion. At Qatar’s $90 million premium terminal in Doha, travelers can work at computer stations or via Wi-Fi, duty-free shop for jewelry, liquor, and cosmetics, and get Elemis spa treatments. Lufthansa’s 12,000-square-foot lounge, meanwhile, has a separate cigar lounge, private offices, bathrooms with monsoon showers, and meals catered by Vienna’s highly acclaimed DO & Co.; travelers are even brought from the lounge to their aircraft by chauffeured Mercedes or Porsche limousine.
Although these over-the-top lounges are the exception, not the rule—the real estate is simply unavailable at most airports—Wilson-Buttigieg predicts that carriers will continue to upgrade their lounges as much as possible (for example, Delta created separate, more spacious check-in lounges for international business-class travelers in two U.S. airports this year.) And airline alliances like the Star Alliance and Oneworld are expected to continue building shared airport lounges around the world, like the Oneworld premium lounge complex opened by British Airways, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas last fall in the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.
In other words, Happy Layover-ing!
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