7 ways the United Club experience has changed due to the pandemic
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One element of the ground experience that’s going to be quite different is airport lounges.
I recently flew United Airlines from San Francisco to Newark (review coming soon). But as a long-time United Club member, I was keen to check out how the lounge experience has changed due to the pandemic. What follows are seven impressions from my visit.
Expect limited hours and consolidated locations
Because of the reduced demand due to the pandemic, airlines have been forced to slash frequencies and cut their schedules. Many carriers have doubled-down on their hub strategies as well.
As such, some airports that used to see multiple flights a day may only have one or two daily departures.
With far fewer flights, most United Clubs are closed, including some at the country’s busiest airports like Atlanta and Seattle. In hub airports, expect only one or two of the largest outposts to remain open.
And of those locations that are open, the hours have been scaled back too. At SFO, only one of the three Clubs is welcoming flyers — the location near Gate F11 is open from 5:45 a.m. until 7 p.m. daily.
Additionally, all Polaris Lounges continue to remain closed systemwide, so even if you’re flying an eligible international itinerary, you’ll only be admitted to the regular United Club.
Related: The ultimate guide to United Clubs
Customer-service stations are closed
The last time I visited the SFO United Club, there were long lines to speak to a customer service agent. There had been heavy fog that morning and many customers were queuing for personalized help in rebooking connections and canceled flights.
During my latest visit, all the customer service podiums were empty. Aside from the welcome agents, there’s no dedicated customer service station.
According to the lounge manager, there’s just not enough demand to warrant a dedicated customer service agent. Instead, the welcome attendants are happy to help with any itinerary issues.
Inconsistent food and beverages based on local regulations
Before the coronavirus, you knew what food and beverage options to expect when visiting a United Club. On most afternoon and evening visits, you’d find a buffet with some salads, hummus, vegetables, soup and some cookies.
Now, your gastronomic experience will vary depending on which club you visit.
Based on local San Francisco guidelines, indoor dining isn’t permitted. As such, there was nothing served within the lounge. The bar is shuttered, as are the coffee and soft drink fountains and buffet. Instead, there was a small to-go bag with some prepackaged fare — limited to one per person when departing the lounge.
Most other locations, like Chicago and Denver, are offering an assortment of packaged light snacks as well as a full-service bar. In those airports, you can eat and drink within the lounge.
Related: The world’s best United Clubs
The clubs are cleaner than ever
And the CleanPlus program was on full display during my visit.
Every countertop and seating area was spotless. I witnessed a lounge attendant disinfecting seats and tables after passengers left.
In addition, the bathrooms were cleaner than ever. There was nothing out of place, and the entire restroom felt like it’d just been sanitized.
Overcrowing is a thing of the past
Airport lounges suffered from overcrowding in the years leading up to the pandemic. There just wasn’t enough space for lounges in airports and demand far outpaced supply.
Travelers haven’t yet come back in pre-COVID numbers (we’re a far way off), so you don’t need to worry about crowding just yet.
Indeed, I counted just about thirteen guests in the United Club when I visited. For a lounge that could comfortably seat hundreds, it was an eerie feeling being one of the only guests during the middle of the day.
That means there’s plenty of space to socially distance and get some work done before a flight.
This one was a long time coming, but it’s getting accelerated due to the coronavirus. In Europe and Asia, you can enter many airport lounges simply by scanning your eligible boarding pass next to an automatic gate.
I’ve yet to see that in the U.S., but we’re getting close.
Now, to enter a United Club, you’ll be asked to scan your individual boarding pass and wait a few seconds for a welcome agent stationed behind plexiglass to confirm your eligibility.
This is definitely a step in the right direction, and I hope United continues investing in such time-saving technology.
American Express and Delta were both at the forefront of the digital lounge entrance revolution. Amex acquired Lounge Buddy and already started deploying a faster check-in experience, while Delta now allows you to pair your eligible credit card in your digital wallet for speedier entry.
Wear your mask
This one’s simple. If you’re planning to fly during the pandemic, don’t forget to pack a comfortable mask. (Our favorites are the TPG-branded ones.)
All major U.S. airlines now require that you wear a mask throughout the entire end-to-end travel journey, including during a visit to the lounge. You’re only allowed to take it off when eating or drinking.
United recently expanded the list of exclusions (masks with valves) and exemptions (everyone must wear a mask two years old or older). If you’ve forgotten an eligible mask or yours broke, you can always ask the lounge attendant for another one.
United Clubs are going to look a lot different when you’re ready to travel again.
For one, finding an open lounge will be much harder than before. But once you’ve entered, expect them to be a lot cleaner and much less crowded than before.
Food and beverage choices may be more limited, but it’s a small price to pay for an overall safer visit.
All photos by Zach Griff/The Points Guy
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