Innovative solutions needed for overcrowded lounges

by John Walton
December 06, 2018
overcrowded lounges
Asiana-now-has-two-Incheon lounge complexes but it's still not enough. All photos: John Walton.

What can — or should — an airline do when its business class lounges are so overcrowded that passengers can barely find a seat, catering is downgraded to “poor for a suburban office park meeting room” and the notionally exclusive perk becomes less attractive than the terminal?

I’ve hit that problem three times in recent weeks, and for three different reasons.

The first: British Airways’ Galleries Club business lounge at London Heathrow Terminal 3.

This dingy, dark, unloved and unlovable space is accessed through a dim and industrial corridor that is about the farthest thing from a premium experience that you can get in an airport.

The space is badly lit, the food is miserable, yet bizarrely it is often chockablock, and indeed it was on this visit — so much so that I couldn’t get a photo to demonstrate.

BA’s solution, although it is potentially a costly one, could be to send customers to the largely empty and objectively superior Qantas or Cathay Pacific lounges next door, or even the often emptier American Airlines lounge down the hall (even though the latter is not exactly a paragon of passenger experience).

overcorwded lounges
The American lounge at Heathrow is often empty and not exactly a delight but it’s better than BA.

Yes, these oneworld alliance partners would charge British Airways for the privilege, but compared with the thousands of pounds passengers are paying for long-haul flights out of Heathrow’s oldest terminal, often requiring a bus change to T5 or elsewhere if they’re connecting, it’s a drop in the bucket.

Problem two: Finnair’s non-Schengen (i.e., long-haul plus UK-Ireland) lounge in Helsinki.

In fairness to Finnair, the airline is in the process of renovating this lounge complex, with its previous premium lounge (for top-tier frequent flyers) closed for works and the airport generally creaking at the seams during the rush-hours of Finnair’s Asian inbound and outbound long-haul banks.

Not only do passengers end up hovering while clutching a paper plate and plastic cup near the food service areas like some kind of jet-lagged zombie buffet of the damned, but Finnair has abandoned all pretense of premium catering with insipid tortilla wraps that make one think fondly of even BA’s lounge catering.

Finnair’s solution needs to think outside the box. While there is a third party lounge option, I hear it’s also chockers given the number of passengers with a credit card-provided Priority Pass membership. But given this is a temporary problem, there are many possibilities.

What could Finnair do with a restaurant voucher, for example?

Helsinki Airport has many a pleasant enough café (indeed, too many and taking up too much space given the passenger flow requirements).

READ: The future of business class seating

Could Finnair give passengers who are willing to forego their lounge privileges a boost of frequent flyer miles? An in-flight Internet voucher? An inflight shopping gift card? A free seat selection next time they’re in economy? A bottle of airline wine to take home?

Problem three: Asiana’s brand new “east” business class lounge in Seoul Incheon’s terminal 1.

Overcorwded lounges
With the number of passengers in the-Asiana lounge more staff to clear spaces are clearly required.

With Korean Air moved over to Terminal 2, Asiana has most of T1 to itself, so it’s truly astounding how busy its lounges were for every minute of my four-hour connection last week.

Seating was hard to find, and staff were disinterested in being proactive and asking passengers to remove their luggage from a seat next to them.

Catering is fine but stodgy, greasy and with little Korean influence: this could have been Stockholm or Sydney, Sao Paulo or San Francisco. And there was a queue for showers in a brand new lounge.

Overcrowded lounges
The food in the Asiana lounge was unimpressive and heavy.

Asiana surely has options for solutions here: Incheon is no longer desperate for terminal space. A “west” lounge to join its “central” one, perhaps?

Staff to manage the flows and encourage passengers to share space?

A dedicated “snooze lounge” to pull out passengers with long connections who fancy a nap in a quiet space in the privacy pods that are presently right by the highest traffic area?

I’m not unsympathetic to the issues faced by airlines. Airport investment (like at Heathrow) is complex and lounge space is often tight.

It’s hard to persuade management that an uptick in lounge-eligible passengers is long-term and worthy of investment rather than seasonal or transient.

And even then, as Finnair sees, it takes time to refurbish and expand lounges to meet the increasing demands of passengers used to new global hub airports with entire floors dedicated to premium travelers.

But those aren’t reasons not to try.