|The Delta Airport Lounge Puts Passengers on the Clock -- WSJ|
|Dow Jones Newswires June 15, 2022 05:30:00 AM ET |
By Dawn Gilbertson | Photographs by Lauren Justice for The Wall Street Journal
LOS ANGELES -- Delta Air Lines has a new message for travelers used to logging several hours on their laptops at its airport clubs: Don't overstay your welcome.
"We're not a WeWork," says Claude Roussel, managing director of Delta Sky Club.
Delta this month became the first U.S. carrier to clamp down on camping out in airport lounges, those havens of free food and drinks, Wi-Fi, abundant power outlets, cozy nooks and sometimes showers.
Under the new policy, eligible fliers get lounge access three hours before departure, and not a minute more. (Those on layovers or experiencing delays are exempt from the policy.) Not all travelers need that much club time, but losing the option is yet another thin slice of service they've had and lost, at a time when some airports are urging travelers to arrive at least three hours before their flight even for domestic departures.
I found out how strict the rules are at Los Angeles International Airport on Saturday morning. When I nestled my phone under the kiosk scanner at the entrance to Delta's new Sky Club lounge in Terminal 3, the screen flashed caution- tape yellow and directed me to an ambassador.
"What time is your flight?" she asked.
It was 9:23 a.m. My flight was at 12:25 p.m. Try again in two minutes, she said.
Two of the four clubs I visited over the weekend used kiosk timestamps to flag early birds. One that didn't: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where the agent who scanned my boarding pass at the desk welcomed me in although it was more than 15 minutes early. Delta says it is rolling out the kiosks to all Sky Clubs.
The policy change was needed to manage larger crowds while maintaining service levels and ambience as travel roars back, says Mr. Roussel, who oversees Delta's 54 lounges. Lounge access isn't cheap. Travelers gain entrance with a membership that costs between $545 and $845 annually. They also can get in by signing up for credit cards with high annual fees, buying pricey tickets in premium cabins or reaching the top tiers of the frequent-flier program.
Mr. Roussel says Delta already can see the effects of the change across its network of lounges, which reopened by last summer following pandemic shutdowns.
"In the scale of what we have, you're not going to notice 200 guests less in a specific lounge," he says. "But you might notice that when at 4 p.m. on a Thursday your club was at 90% capacity it is now at 80%."
He says the clubs were designed to handle waves of passengers making a pit stop before their flight. Yet Delta was seeing more travelers arrive as soon as they checked out of their hotel to eat and work until their flight later, especially in the era of remote or hybrid work.
In addition to the three-hour rule, Delta planned to eliminate post-flight lounge access but swiftly reversed course after passenger backlash. Mr. Roussel says the airline thought both changes would have the least impact on guests. A few years ago, Delta stopped selling day passes to its clubs to reduce crowds.
Mr. Roussel calls three hours a "very generous amount of time" to spend in the club.
Jack Armstrong is a 25-year-old commercial drone pilot who lives in Los Angeles and has elite status in Delta's frequent-flier program. He says travelers with Sky Club access don't really get three hours in the lounge under the new policy because Delta boarding starts about 40 minutes before departure.
Mr. Armstrong was annoyed when he was temporarily turned away from the LAX club last week after arriving more than 3 1/2 hours before his flight thanks to a ride from a friend with an earlier flight. The rule tripped him up again on Saturday, when he had to wait to access the Sky Club lounge in Salt Lake City.
Mr. Armstrong posted a negative review on Yelp and filed an online complaint with Delta calling the three-hour rule "silly" and urging more flexibility or a reversal of the policy. (Such complaints often take a month or more to process. A Delta spokesman says the airline listens to all customer feedback.)
"Gyms don't say, 'You came too many times this month. You can't come in until you wait a few days,'" he wrote to Delta. "Same principle with an airport lounge, especially if you buy flights frequently on Delta and want to have a space to relax."
Mr. Roussel says Delta modeled the three-hour rule on a similar policy change at American Express lounges in 2019. Delta and American Express are close partners, with the "vast majority" of visits to Sky Club lounges by people with an American Express card, he says.
The credit card company's Centurion Lounges restrict access to three hours before a flight and don't allow post- flight visits except for connecting passengers. Crowds remain a problem, travelers say. More than a dozen fliers waited to get into a full Centurion Lounge in Seattle Sunday morning.
In February, Centurion Lounges will start charging most travelers for guest passes, including American Express Platinum card members, the key visitors to the lounges, who get two free passes now. An American Express spokeswoman says how full its lounges are can vary based on factors including time of day, cancellations and delays, and that when there is a wait to get into a Centurion Lounge, it is typically between 10 and 15 minutes.
American, United and Alaska haven't followed Delta's move. Representatives for each airline say travelers with same-day boarding passes can enter their lounge any time before or after their flight.
"It's always difficult to go first, because when you go first you typically get all the criticism," Mr. Roussel says. "But you also get a lot of the benefits."
Minneapolis attorney Tom Pack travels twice a month for work and has platinum medallion status on Delta. He says Delta and other lounge operators have contributed to the linger-longer problem by making the lounges more luxe in a never-ending race for passenger loyalty.
Exhibit A: the 30,000 square-foot-plus LAX Sky Club, which became Delta's largest when it opened in April. The club buffets include dishes from Michelin-starred chef Akira Back. There are phone booths for privacy on those Zoom calls and a sprawling outdoor deck with hotel rooftop vibes, minus the pricey beverage bill.
Mr. Pack can recall when lounges weren't swank, less than a decade ago.
"The lounge was quiet and you could get a drink, but that was about it," he said while sipping Champagne from the deck before his Saturday flight home.
Mr. Pack rarely gets to the airport early. He arrived at the LAX Sky Club about 75 minutes before his flight Saturday.
"Who gets to the airport more than three hours before their flight?" he says. "Particularly the type of people that have lounge access. Those are the people who have TSA PreCheck, who have CLEAR. And they're seasoned travelers."
Write to Dawn Gilbertson at email@example.com