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Airport lounges have always been a luxury. But are they worth it in a pandemic?

These are the benefits and risks during covid-19


(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

After most airport lounges shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic and resulting decrease in air travel, some are opening again — and attempting to hold on to the same allure they had pre-covid.

For weary travelers who could afford or expense them, airport lounges once served as a port in the storm. Access to the exclusive spaces was possible in several ways, whether through paid entry, a perk of your credit card, airline loyalty program status or a top-tier plane ticket, among others.

Lounges promised travelers an elevated airport visit, with perks like peace and quiet, complimentary food and alcohol, better WiFi and, in some cases, spa services. Then the pandemic changed everything.

Many “high-risk” amenities have been taken away. Food and drink services have been altered. And the potential of being in closer quarters with others may leave travelers questioning whether the lounges are worth the price (or time) anymore. Are they a worthy investment in the covid-19 era?

Some in the industry are making that case by marketing themselves as high-end, highly sanitized hideaways.

On its website, Priority Pass, an airport lounge access membership company, advertises that airport lounges are becoming more important havens for travelers, welcoming them back to a “new age of safety and luxury” where they can “avoid the crowds, stay safe."

When the pandemic began, Priority Pass reached out to its customers to find out how travelers were feeling about lounges. Andy Besant, managing director for travel experiences for Collinson Group, which oversees Priority Pass, says customers were still keen on visiting lounges during their travel, but they wanted to make sure there were new procedures to address the pandemic.

“There’s still huge appetite for both airports to commercialize their space and from the [lounge] brands to really promote the customer experience of travel, which still has that whole high romance and emotional attraction around it. And I don’t think that will change post-pandemic.”

Priority Pass’s Besant says that at this time, about 60 percent of their lounges worldwide have reopened with a set of health and safety standards.

Many of the new changes seem like pandemic common knowledge now: implementing social distance guidelines and contactless check-in; removing communal newspapers and magazines; moving furniture to promote social distancing; training staff on use of personal protective equipment (PPE); and more thorough cleaning and disinfection recommendations. Depending on the location of the lounge, face masks may be required for staff and guests at all times (with the exception of when eating or drinking), and lounge capacity may be reduced or limited.

Individual lounges have also been rolling out new procedures. In addition to the basics, Delta has modified food buffets with grab-and-go items, and it is experimenting with UV disinfection cubbies at its Atlanta lounges, which guests can use to sanitize personal devices.

American Airlines Admirals Club lounges are using touch-free, QR code menus and disposable, single-use glassware, and having staff members serve food from behind protective acrylic screens.

At The Centurion® Lounge by American Express, guests are seated by Membership Services Professionals and served “pre-portioned cuisine curated by our Executive Chefs."

But just as before the pandemic, a traveler’s experience at a lounge will vary widely.

Zach Honig, editor at large of the Points Guy, a travel site, has visited airport lounges twice since the pandemic began. At the end of a work trip to Dubai in October, Honig went to the Emirates business class lounge before his flight home. His first-class ticket would have normally gotten him access to the Emirates first class lounge, but the airline has yet to reopen it. All passengers were consolidated into one.

“It was so crowded and so many people had their masks off to eat and drink that I didn’t even feel comfortable taking mine off to have some water,” Honig says of the experience.

Then in November, Honig flew with his girlfriend from Newark Liberty International Airport to Albuquerque International Sunport. During a layover at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, they stopped by the United Club lounge and opted for some Cup Noodles.

“Everybody was kind of packed in together in a pretty tight space, and it wasn’t all that well-distanced,” Honig says. “I just asked [United staff] if there was anywhere more private, and they pointed me to these phone rooms. So that was great.”

Besant recognizes there is only so much Priority Pass can do to enforce those standards as coronavirus regulations differ from place to place. Protocols that are widely accepted in one region may be difficult to enforce in another.

“Our advice is, of course, to the lounges to uphold the health and safety procedures that we encourage them to do so, but they are their own entities,” Besant says, adding that having everyone comply with the same coronavirus precautions is an issue that goes far beyond airport lounges.

Health experts say that even if an airport lounge promises exciting pandemic tweaks, that doesn’t make it coronavirus-proof. Joseph Khabbaza, a critical care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic, advises travelers to assess every lounge thoroughly before deciding whether to stay or not.

“You go into the lounge and it looks like there’s plenty of space, that people are wearing masks, and if it feels like a safe setting, then I think it’s okay to hang out,” he says. However, “if a scenario or a situation you’re in ever feels a little unsafe, just leave.”

Before indulging in the complimentary refreshments, experts warn that removing your mask to eat or drink, particularly if other travelers around you are doing the same, can increase your risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. However, Adrian Hyzler, the chief medical officer of Healix International, a company that specializes in international security, medical and travel-assistance services, notes that eating and drinking in the lounge could have a benefit over doing so in the general terminal if it means skipping long lines or crowds at a food court.

No matter where you end up sitting in a lounge, experts recommend cleaning any surfaces you plan on using, even if you see lounge staff going through extra cleaning efforts. Caesar Djavaherian, co-founder and doctor at Carbon Health, recommends travelers behave as though others in the lounge are infected. “Ask yourself, what would you do to protect yourself?” he says. “Some people might say, ‘Oh, I would leave the room,’ but you don’t necessarily have to because we know if you’re distant, if you’re masked and they are masked, that the transmission risk is incredibly small.”

Hyzler warns that even if a lounge appears luxurious and well sanitized, travelers should pay attention to how its ventilation compares to the rest of the airport. “Some lounges have quite low ceilings,” he says. “They’re small, and they feel cramped, whereas out in the terminal, you’ve got very high ceilings, you’ve got good ventilation and you’ve got loads of space.”

As travel continues to pick up, it may be challenging to socially distance in airport terminals or premium lounges, and fewer open lounge options at a particular airport could mean more travelers may be flocking to the same ones. Check online, on either the airline website or LoungeBuddy.com, to see whether your preferred lounge is open before visiting.

For now, whether a lounge visit is worth the price is subjective. Some travelers may enjoy the service, while others may see it as a downgrade, compared with past visits.

Before the pandemic, Honig enjoyed getting to the airport early to take advantage of lounge access. Now, he would rather cut his airport arrival time as close as possible and skip VIP lounges. While Honig enjoyed the ramen at the United Club lounge during his layover at O’Hare, it was not enough to warrant a paid lounge visit.

“I would have been very unhappy if I had paid for lounge access,” he says. “I think United charges $59 for a one-time pass to go into the lounge, and nothing about that experience was worth even $10 to me.”

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