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Overcrowding at lounges is not a new problem — but what can be done about it?

Sept. 07, 2022
16 min read
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Editor's note: This story has been updated


If you've flown at all this summer, you had a decent chance of being inconvenienced at some point along the way.

Of the 2.1 million flights U.S. carriers operated from June 1 to Aug. 30, more than 22% were delayed and almost 47,000 more were canceled outright, per FlightAware data. Airlines pointed to weather, staffing shortages and air traffic control for these numbers.

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When flight delays occur, travelers with access to airport lounges likely head straight there. After all, whether you visit an airline-operated lounge (such as United Clubs, American Airlines Admirals Clubs, Delta Sky Clubs, etc.) or those operated by credit card issuers (like Capital One and American Express), lounge access is a great way to escape the gate area. And -- in the case of airline-operated lounges -- potentially the best spot to get rebooking help.

But this experience becomes far less enjoyable in a hurry after making your way to the lounge only to discover a line or waitlist to get in because the lounge has reached capacity. Given the high volume of delays and cancellations that have occurred recently, it's safe to say that these disruptions are at least partly to blame for the increased likelihood of lounges being full.

However, despite seeming worse this summer, crowded airport lounges are not a new problem. In fact, lounge operators have taken steps to address overcrowding by reducing entry among day pass users and cutting back on guest privileges.

So why do these once-exclusive lounges still manage to occasionally have entry lines longer than those waiting to order from Shack Shack? Below are a few reasons — and what can be done to address the problem.

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Why airport lounges are so overcrowded

When I asked about recent lounge experiences among TPG staffers and readers via the TPG Facebook Lounge, many said they'd also encountered long wait times to get in or were turned away entirely. Additionally, many cited reduced lounge hours and the inability to use day passes at certain lounges as major frustrations.

"There's no two ways around it. Summer business volumes are high and significant from an operations standpoint — passenger counts are higher than pre-COVID, with some locations exceeding +130%," said Paul Pettas, vice president of brand and communications at Sodexo Live!, a hospitality company servicing more than 500 premium airport lounges globally.

While airports and airlines have both suffered pandemic-induced staffing shortages, these seem to be trickling down to airport lounges, too.

Pettas also said lounges are having trouble keeping staff levels where they need to be with large crowds returning.

"It’s no secret that staffing is an issue for the entire hospitality industry right now, and it’s an added layer of complexity to hire staff in a timely manner and also adhere to the security standards of the TSA," he said.

Lounges first modified their hours to be much shorter in response to reduced travel demand and COVID-19 restrictions during the pandemic. And, of course, some were closed for six months or longer.

When Amex's Centurion Lounge network first reopened in July 2021, card members were sometimes asked to join a waitlist for entry at select lounges.

TPG director Summer Hull recalled how her "dreams of free avocado bruschetta, salads and other small plates of nibbles from the live cooking station" were crushed in January after a 30- to 45-minute wait just to get into the Centurion Lounge at Denver International Airport (DEN). That lounge, along with Centurion Lounges at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and Miami International Airport (MIA), were all operating under reduced hours at the time.

Many of the United Clubs didn't reopen until well into 2021, and some, including United Clubs at Denver International Airport, George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and Dulles International Airport (IAD) are still closed.

In a response to a question I posted on Facebook, many readers shared experiences like Summer's at Centurion Lounges in addition to examples for other lounges under American Express' Global Lounge Collection brand, which operates more than 1,200 airport lounges across 130 countries. Readers also cited having issues at the Delta Sky Clubs, United Clubs, Alaska Lounges and lounges across the Priority Pass network, the latter of which is an independent collection of lounges at 600-plus airports globally.

Although reduced hours were certainly a contributing factor to overcrowding at lounges in 2020 and 2021, lounge hours have expanded to be somewhat back to normal in 2022.

Related: 5 things airport lounges need to do ASAP to stop overcrowding

Steps lounges have taken to address overcrowding

Some respondents mentioned being turned away from lounges when attempting to enter with a day pass, which certain lounges permit those without annual memberships to purchase and use for single-day access to the lounge and its amenities.

To cut back on crowds, some lounges have reduced the number of day pass holders who can enter, diminishing the inherent value of affected cards for some.

For example, those with the United Explorer Card are allotted two annual, one-time lounge passes as a benefit for cardholders.

"Lots of United Clubs aren't accepting one-time passes from the United Explorer Card or that are purchased for $59," TPG points and miles reporter Kyle Olsen explained. "They're only allowing travelers with a United Club membership due to overcrowding."

Additionally, Amex announced last summer that it was shifting toward cutting the free two-guest policy for most cardmembers, excluding those who meet a spending threshold. As of Feb. 1, 2023, holders of The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express must meet a $75,000 spending requirement every calendar year to qualify for complimentary guest access. If not, Amex will charge cardholders $50 for each adult guest — though the fee is reduced to $30 for younger guests between 2 and 17 (proof of age is required).

"For many, this is unfortunate news to go along with shelling out $695 each year for the Platinum Card," wrote TPG senior aviation reporter Zach Griff (see rates and fees). "However, some deep-pocketed or solo travelers may be thrilled by a reduction in lounge guests. By cutting free guests, Amex is seemingly working to reduce overcrowding."

In addition to reducing day passes and guest privileges, airlines have further limited lounge access to those traveling on their own flights (or those operated by select partners).

The breakfast lounge at the Delta Sky Club at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). SCOTT MAYEROWITZ/THE POINTS GUY

"Historically, you could get access to American, Delta and United lounges simply by purchasing a lounge membership from the airline," TPG senior points and miles reporter Katie Genter wrote in 2019. "But Delta already limits Sky Club access to those who are flying with Delta and its partners on the same day of their flights, and American and United implemented similar policies on Nov. 1, 2019."

Today, American flyers can access the carrier's Admirals Clubs via the carrier’s most premium cobranded credit card, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®. However, entrance is only granted when booked on an American, Oneworld or Alaska flight. Meanwhile, those with Platinum, Platinum Pro or Executive Platinum AAdvantage status can do so when flying qualifying long-haul international itineraries operated by AA or a Oneworld partner. And anyone can access the lounge by paying for an annual membership — though again, you must be on a qualifying flight.

"Airline clubs that once used to recognize 'best customers' are now routinely sold — and over-sold — to whoever pays cash," said Bob Mann, an airline industry analyst who once ran the Admirals Clubs and AAdvantage loyalty program. "Add the need to arrive early to hedge against possible screening delays, while working or waiting at the club and a place to go on long connections, and when airlines delay and/or cancel flights."

Generally speaking, though, travelers do not get full complimentary access to airport lounges by having elite status alone, except in the cases of top-tier elites like AA's highest status level, ConciergeKey, which includes access to all AA lounges, such as Admirals Club and Flagship lounges, plus reciprocal access to Oneworld Emerald lounges.

Related: VIP treatment: Your guide to invitation-only airline and hotel elite status

How international lounge crowds fare compared to domestic ones

When looking at lounges overall, not every single airport lounge is crowded at all times, and the likelihood of getting a spot depends on various factors, including the timing of your visit and the location of your lounge.

International lounges are one area where travelers may be less likely to have issues finding a space in the lounge, said TPG director of credit cards content Nick Ewen.

"Although credit card access has expanded to some of these international lounges, it varies by airline," Nick said. "Some are still reserved for first- or business-class passengers only where you can’t get in with a credit card, making these lounges relatively exclusive."

For example, two of the seven Emirates lounges at Dubai International Airport (DXB) are reserved specifically for business- and first-class flyers and those with certain Emirates Skywards status levels. Similarly, at Singapore Changi Airport (SIN), there are SilverKris lounges for first- and business-class customers flying Singapore Airlines or partner Star Alliance airlines in the same class.

This model, however, is far less common in domestic lounges. The result is a "recipe for the overcrowding we have seen for decades, now just much worse because of the rampant club merchandising," Mann said.

Related: UK Priority Pass lounges are perpetually full, and you’re not the only one who’s noticed

Possible crowding solutions

Delta Sky Club at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL). ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

A primary factor still contributing to lounge problems is the plethora of credit cards offering members access, including several airline cobranded credit cards, cards from issuers like Amex and Capital One, and premium credit cards that give lounge access to Priority Pass lounges.

Take the Delta Sky Club and Centurion Lounges, for example, as both are known for regularly being full. Delta allows those with The Platinum Card® from American Express and the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card into the Sky Club.

Continuous complaints of the Delta Sky Club being full are ironic, though, because Delta has the most restrictive guest policy of the Big Three airlines, according to Nick. American and United both allow primary cardholders of their respective high-end cards to bring two guests or a spouse and dependent children into lounges. American even extends lounge access (with guest privileges) to authorized users on the Citi AAdvantage Executive Card.

Even so, the Atlanta-based airline often cited as a fan favorite offers more ways than any other airline to access lounges, including via Amex cards, which neither American nor United does.

Centurion Lounges are open to American Express cardmembers with Centurion- or Platinum-branded cards, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express; cardmembers with other Platinum cards, such as the Schwab or Ameriprise versions and international versions; those with the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card; and those with the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card.

This seems to suggest that lounge access for some clubs (such as the Centurion Lounge or the Delta Sky Club) is at least, in part, driven by the number of credit cards alone giving automatic access. Therefore, one potential solution for Delta and American Express to consider is limiting lounge access derived from holding certain credit cards alone.

"Delta specifically suffers because it lets people with Amex Platinum into its lounges when flying Delta. And overall, lots of cards offer Priority Passes, so those lounges get super overcrowded," said TPG senior aviation reporter Ethan Klapper. "It’s fair to say it’s a credit card-driven issue."

Rather than cutting back on the number of cards offering access, Amex has implemented other measures during peak travel times to address overcrowding issues, including "increasing staff levels to assist with card member needs, setting up additional food and beverage stations to minimize wait times at the bar and buffet and leveraging technology to manage entry lists so that American Express Member Services Professionals can alert Card Members via text as soon as a space is available," per an American Express spokesperson.

Currently, American Express is the only issuer to have implemented a virtual queuing system, allowing lounge visitors to reserve a spot ahead of time when they know they're going to be at the airport. Making this more widespread is a second step lounge operators could consider.

This feature for accessing the Centurion Lounge virtual check-in is currently only available via the American Express App. It provides users with a real-time look at the capacity of nearby participating lounges while gleaning a sense of how busy they are at a given time. Although wait times vary, Amex claims the typical wait time to get into a Centurion Lounge is 10 to 15 minutes. Once you select a lounge, the app will tell you how busy it is; notes range from "Not busy" to "Almost full."

For example, the app showed varying degrees of busyness at the Centurion Lounges at Harry Reid International Airport (LAS), Charlotte Douglas International Airport and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) on the morning of Aug. 25, as shown below.

However, the app only provides check-in codes that are valid for 30 minutes, meaning you can only reserve your spot within a 30-minute time frame of arriving at the lounge. Know, though, that there are reports that this alone doesn't actually get you ahead in the line, so you may still need to physically check in.

A system where you can truly reserve a spot in the lounge in advance would be more helpful, even if that meant a capped number of express or guaranteed entries per year.

Of course, a practical yet longer-term solution would be to build more lounges, as Captial One has said they will do at Denver and Dulles international airports, both of which have been pushed back to next year. As evidenced by their delays, the amount of infrastructure and time necessary to build out a lounge will not help address space capacity limits now.

Similarly, Amex is currently expanding Centurion Lounges at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) and San Francisco International Airport (SFO), while opening new locations in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is in the pipeline.

Additionally, Chase will be entering the lounge space with branded "Chase Sapphire Lounge by The Club" planned at LaGuardia Airport, Boston Logan International Airport (BOS), San Diego International Airport (SAN), Harry Reid International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and Hong Kong International Airport (HKG). The first outpost is expected to open this year.

And then there's United which is close to opening a new grab-and-go concept in Denver, which could help serve the needs of those who just want to grab a snack on the way to their next flight but don't want or need a place to physically hang out for long periods of time.

Bottom line

Passengers wait in line to access the Delta Sky Club at O'Hare International Airport (ORD). ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

While no single source bears responsibility for overcrowding at lounges, when you add up all of the ways to access a lounge — and layer that with travelers stuck in airports longer than expected — it's easy to understand how and why they get crowded.

"Credit card access is one of the factors contributing to overcrowding at lounges," said TPG senior credit cards editor Matt Moffitt. "Guesting privileges are part of it, too. Also, a lot more people have access due to elite status earned, whether through flying and or credit card spend."

Airlines and credit card issuers have to balance competing priorities among lounge guests.

On the one hand, companies have to appease their high-end spenders with premium credit cards who want to feel like they're being rewarded for opening a card with a large annual fee.

"You want to feel like you’re getting your money's worth out of these perks, including lounge access," Nick said. "It's such a fine line between providing access to ensure you’re covering costs and allowing people to enjoy access without too many people."

In the short term, travelers may be patient in dealing with one-off experiences with busy lounges or the inability to get in at all. But if that becomes the ongoing norm, especially for those with credit cards that have annual fees exceeding $500, would-be lounge visitors may decide to take themselves off of the waitlist forever the next time that card annual fee comes due.

Related: How the United Club is becoming the office I no longer have

Featured image by Delta Sky Club at ATL (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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