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Delta is making its airport lounges more exclusive

Delta Air Lines is tightening Sky Club access to prevent long lines and over-capacity lounges

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

Delta thinks its cushy airport clubs have gotten a little too popular.

On Wednesday, the airline announced it is changing the requirements to access its Sky Club lounges starting early next year to “preserve a best-in-class experience.”

The updates include limiting who can buy memberships, raising prices and cutting off access for frequent fliers who don’t have premium tickets. Travelers with eligible credit cards will still have access.

In a news release, Delta said the lounges have experienced “visit growth that has outpaced Club capacity — resulting in frustration for some customers who find themselves waiting in lines or searching for seating once inside.”

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Under the new rules, annual memberships to clubs will only be available to travelers who have reached frequent-flier status — broken down into four Medallion levels that range from silver to diamond — instead of to any passenger. To earn silver Medallion status, customers must log 25,000 qualifying miles and spend $3,000 in qualifying payments. Delta discontinued single-visit passes to its Sky Club Lounge in November 2018.

Fees will increase from $545 to $695 for an individual and from $845 to $1,495 for executive membership, which includes access for up to two guests. Fees for a guest will go up to $50 from $39. For a top-tier Medallion member, executive membership will also be more costly to choose within the benefits that come with elevated status.

Even if they have paid for a membership, travelers who book the most restricted fare — called Basic Economy — won’t be able to visit the lounge unless they have an eligible credit card.

Previously, frequent fliers with status were granted access to lounges at departure airports if they were flying internationally in any part of the plane. Now, the same fliers who are seated in the main cabin or in the “Comfort Plus” section won’t be able to use the lounge, unless they have other ways to access it like a paid membership. Customers who have tickets for “Premium Select” (a mash-up of economy and business) or top-tier “Delta One” seats will still be able to use the clubs.

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The newest changes, which go into effect in January and February, follow efforts earlier this year to cut down on the amount of time people spend in lounges before flights. Back in June, Delta instituted a policy that travelers could only access clubs within three hours of their scheduled departure time. At the time, Delta said it made the move to make sure the experience could be “widely enjoyed” by customers.

Lounges offer free WiFi and drinks, dedicated help for flight issues and a place to wait for a flight apart from the larger crowds at the gate.

In Detroit and Atlanta, travelers will be able to use the airline’s app to find out how crowded the clubs are starting next month. Officials said they chose those airports to start because each has multiple clubs, which would allow passengers to pick an alternate if their first choice was too busy. The capacity-checking option will be available at other airports in the first half of 2023.

“It’s incredibly important to us that Delta Sky Clubs continue to deliver an industry-leading experience for our guests,” Dwight James, senior vice president of customer engagement and loyalty and CEO of Delta Vacations, said in a news release. “While we’re thrilled to see so many customers enjoy the fruits of our teams’ hard work, our goal now is to balance the popularity of the Clubs with the premium service and atmosphere for which they were designed — and that our guests deserve.”

Kyle Potter, executive editor of the travel site Thrifty Traveler, said the new changes did not surprise him.

“Delta took a first crack at this in the spring and it was clear, really within a matter of weeks, that it didn’t really move the needle much, if at all,” he said.

On social media, some travelers complained that the moves were a slap in the face to loyalty members who had built up status to access the lounges — especially when certain credit card holders would still be able to use the clubs.

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Potter said banks and airlines have marketed heavily to travelers who are willing to spend hundreds of dollars in annual fees on credit cards that will offer them perks like points and lounge access.

“There is a battle between credit cards and elite status, and credit cards are winning,” he said. “It is not only the primary way to get into a Delta Sky Club, it is the primary problem for why Delta Sky Clubs are so crowded.”

In a statement, Delta said it did not make the lounge changes lightly.

“Our number one priority is to ensure a premium experience for our members, so we must balance the popularity of the Delta Sky Club experience with the premium atmosphere and service we hold ourselves to,” the airline said.