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Airport lounge wars: How credit card companies are competing for your pre-flight cocktail

Aug. 12, 2021
6 min read
Amex Centurion Lounge MIA Expansion ZH
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Once upon a time, airport lounge access was only for the select few.

A private, tranquil pre-flight experience was reserved for the most frequent flyers or highest elite members. But the rise in popularity of airline lounge memberships and Priority Pass over the past decade has widened the appeal of — and access to — airport lounges, all of varying quality.

So how did Priority Pass go mainstream? From the Chase Sapphire Reserve® to The Platinum Card® from American Express, Priority Pass has become a standard perk on most premium cards. Enrollment required for select benefits.

Now, we're seeing this trend continue even further, with credit card issuers pushing their own lounge access to more travelers than ever before.

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First came Amex, with a significant head start in 2013. But now, in 2021, Chase and Capital One are intent on capturing a piece of your pre-flight experience — cocktail and all.

Here's exactly how these card companies are democratizing lounge access and whether this is actually a good thing.

The business of credit card airport lounges

Amex Centurion Lounge (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Back in 2013, Amex entered the business of owning and operating airport lounges. And they are some of the most premium lounges in the U.S.

In fact, the Centurion Lounge brand has become wildly successful, and Amex even recently announced a unique approach to how it's planning to scale to 40+ lounges.

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Eight years later, two more card issuers -- Chase and Capital One -- have said they intend to join the airport lounge wars, but from a slightly different business model.

Instead of operating lounges on their own, Chase and Capital One are partnering with existing companies to provide access -- and perhaps more importantly, provide a key credit card branding opportunity.

Related: Chase's airport lounge plans and Capital One's airport lounge plans

Chase's entry to airport lounges

Earlier this summer, Chase confirmed to TPG that it was working with Airport Dimensions — a subsidiary of the Collinson Group — to start a network of lounges.

What other company does Collinson happen to own? Priority Pass.

Chase Lounge at the 2019 U.S. Open. Now, we'll see Chase lounges soon appearing at airports. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

Essentially, the soon-to-be-open Chase airport lounges will be Priority Pass lounges with fancy Chase branding and finishes. That's why it isn't a surprise Chase said that its lounges will be accessible for Priority Pass members -- regardless of whether you hold a Chase credit card or not.

In fact, Chase lounges are an exercise in cobranding since they will officially be called the "Sapphire Lounges by The Club." "The Club" is Airport Dimensions' customer-facing name for their network of fairly run-of-the-mill existing U.S. airport lounges.

For Chase's lounges, expect amenities to go a bit more upmarket, including showers, a family room, a business lounge, and rest and wellness areas.

Capital One's entry to airport lounges

Earlier this year, Capital One also announced its intention to open a network of airport lounges.

A rendering of the DFW Capital One Lounge. (Photo courtesy of Capital One)

Related: Capital One's new lounges will have Peloton bikes

This fall, we can expect a lounge at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), followed by spaces at Washington-Dulles (IAD) and Denver International Airport (DEN) in 2022. Similar to Chase, Capital One isn't operating these lounges on its own. The lounges will be operated by both Plaza Premium Group and TAV Airports.

Although Capital One has yet to announce lounge access and eligibility, it has said that cardholders will be “eligible for special entry rates depending on their card.”

Card companies are democratizing access

Regardless of how the credit card companies' lounge operations vary on the backend, there is no question that airport lounge access is fast becoming a near-ubiquitous feature for most travelers.

Centurion Lounge LAS (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

And that's all thanks to the likes of Amex, Chase and Capital One.

American Express was the first mover, bringing its premium spaces to airports. In 2013, they did this to provide a more elevated Platinum cardholder experience and make up for severing ties with American and U.S. Airways lounges.

With more cardholders and travelers getting access to lounges than ever before, expect more crowds to gather. So while Capital One and Chase will expand lounge access, Amex is hoping to cull some of the crowds by restricting access to guests, including children, starting in 2023.

Related: Solo travelers rejoice: Why I’m in favor of new Amex Centurion Lounge guest rules

Bottom line

Access to airport lounges has widened dramatically in recent years, with airline club memberships, credit card access to Priority Pass and most recently, issuers building out their own branded lounges.

That's mostly good news for cardholders -- and soon-to-be cardholders. But at the same time, lounges will need to continue to innovate and create new experiences.

That's why you should expect to see even more ultra-premium spaces pop up that go beyond just a simple airport lounge. Think: More versions of the uber-high-end PS at LAX or a la carte meals at American's Flagship First Dining.

After all, if everyone has lounge access, then what's the point?

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Honig / 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.