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How has the pandemic changed airport lounges?

Airport lounges are open again — with some pandemic-era modifications. (iStock)
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Airport lounges are back — for better or worse. That’s what Michael Ein discovered on a recent flight from San Francisco to Atlanta.

Ein and his wife, who were flying on Delta Air Lines, used their credit cards to access the airline’s Sky Club lounges in San Francisco and Atlanta before their flights. It was Ein’s first flight since the pandemic and his first visit to a lounge since 2019.

“They encouraged social distancing and masks while not eating or drinking,” he says. “But many people just sat around talking on their phones unmasked.”

That troubled Ein, a retired physician who specialized in infectious diseases. He says he didn’t remove his N95 mask except to eat or drink. But in the lounges, it felt as if the pandemic was over.

But the pandemic isn’t over. And it has changed airport lounges in big and small ways. To get an idea of how much, you have to talk to the company that manages them. Sodexo Live, which operates more than 100 airport lounges around the world, reports that more than 80 percent of its facilities closed during the pandemic. As air travel returned, the company gradually reopened them. More than 90 percent of the facilities are now back in business.

Arica Booker, senior director of facilities management for Sodexo Live, says that although customers may not notice much of a difference in how a lounge operates today, the reopening process was complex and labor-intensive. For example, the company introduced a special dashboard for lounge managers to monitor cleaning processes.

“We had to ensure consistent service delivery and safer, more frequent interactions with travelers,” she says.

Specifically, that means new contactless check-ins at the American Express Centurion lounges. The Amex mobile app also displays lounge capacity, so airport visitors know when they can safely access a facility. The menus feature either “pre-portioned” dishes or self-service offerings, according to Pablo Rivero, vice president and general manager of global lounge experiences at American Express.

“We adapted our amenities for the safety of our card members,” he says.

What does that mean, exactly? On a recent visit to the Centurion lounge in San Francisco International Airport, I experienced a situation similar to the one Ein had at the Delta lounge. I had a 4 p.m. international flight. When I arrived at about 2 p.m., there were only a few empty seats in the lounge, and there was a line at the buffet. Some people had masked up, but many hadn’t. It felt as if this was a place to escape the airport employees and security officers constantly reminding travelers to wear a face covering.

However, there were signs that this was not quite business as usual. A plastic panel separated the receptionist from visitors. There were hand-sanitizing stations, and staff members wore masks. Other than that, the service levels seemed unaffected, which is exactly the point.

Bill McCloskey recently stopped by the Delta Sky lounge on a flight from Washington to Indianapolis via Atlanta. The lounges seemed as full as ever, and the food was similar to pre-pandemic offerings, according to McCloskey, a retired journalist from Bethesda, Md.

“Breakfast consisted of self-brewed Starbucks coffee, a cup of self-poured orange juice and a wrapped sausage biscuit,” he says. “The only concession to covid-19 that I observed was that apples were individually wrapped in plastic.”

The lounges are not quite as crowded as before the pandemic, according to operators. But they are getting there. Airport Dimensions, which operates lounges globally, reports that 18 of 21 facilities in the United States have reopened. In terms of traffic, they’re getting about three-quarters of the visitor numbers as they did in 2019.

“It’s growing at a healthy rate,” says Nancy Knipp, president of Airport Dimensions’ Americas division.

She says the most significant change lounge visitors will notice is a move to contactless options. For example, it recently introduced a contactless ordering service at the Club JAX at Jacksonville International Airport in Florida and the Club Aspire Lounge at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5. It allows visitors to see a lounge-specific menu and make their selection by scanning a QR code or tapping a wireless communication device on signage at each table or seat within the lounge. Passengers can pick up the order or have it delivered to their table.

The bigger question here is whether lounges are worth the cost of a credit card with a pricey annual fee or through Priority Pass, which costs anywhere from $99 to $429 annually and offers access to a network of about 1,300 lounges. If you’re a frequent air traveler and can afford it, the answer is yes — but not always.

I asked Andrew Lock, a frequent traveler who produces “The Travel Pro Show,” an online program about travel, about the value of airport lounges as Year 3 of the pandemic approaches.

He said even some frequent fliers might find that lounge access isn’t the panacea it used to be. For starters, many airlines have unbundled lounge access and made it a separate service — with an annual fee, of course — even for those with an elite status.

“Also, it used to be that members could access the lounges regardless of what airline they were flying, but that’s no longer the case. Now, you have to show a confirmed same-day flight ticket for the same airline as the lounge you’re a member of,” he says.

And finally, despite all the reopenings, some airline lounges remain closed or have had service cutbacks. And some of them will never return, no matter when the pandemic ends.

So here’s my advice: If you fly only occasionally, consider booking a nonstop flight or a shorter connection, so you don’t need to worry about a lounge. But if you travel so often that you practically live at the airport, buy a lounge pass or an annual membership. I can’t quite bring myself to recommend one of those points-earning cards that come with a club membership — but that’s another story.

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