Skift Take

Airlines are redefining loyalty on all fronts, from the way consumers collect miles or points to what that collection grants them access to before they even get on the plane.

The airline lounge is a evolving beast.

What was once a easy, membership-based place for business travelers to knock back a whiskey and make a few pre-flight calls has moved into a much more important place. The lounges, especially at the standard displayed by some of the world’s best carriers, are difficult and expensive to execute well, but are integral to a end-to-end brand experience.

As the spaces continue to evolve, there are a few interesting trends to observe in the market.

1. Intentionally Limited Access

With certain levels in the global alliances, lounge access is granted on international flights.

However, to preserve a certain experience, some airlines have been deliberate in keeping these elite alliance members out of their top-tier offerings.

For example, Qatar airways limits its business and first lounges to people actually flying in those cabins, and not just travelers with Oneworld status. The newly opened Al Safwa First Class lounge only allows First (and business customers in a two class configuration) flying on longer than 4-hour flights.

The Al Mourjan Business lounge has similar limitations for people actually traveling in those cabins. Other travelers with Oneworld status are directed to lounges specifically designed for Oneworld travelers, and are not nearly as nice. This obviously creates a ton of friction with weary and entitled passengers, as evidenced by the frequent skirmishes at the lounge entrances in Doha.

You’d think it was the gates to heaven given the vitriol involved.

This development is significant in that Qatar is optimizing to provide unique experiences for their actual premium passengers, and to ensure these spaces aren’t completely overrun. It is a decidedly luxury strategy in manufacturing scarcity and one would assume it allows them to invest more in the food and other offerings on hand with their branded lounges. But it probably doesn’t win them any love from the powers that be at Oneworld.

From a design perspective, their newly opened first class lounge is beautiful but cold. Something out of Gattaca. It conveys a precise, polished appearance with white marble and long, dramatic hallways.

2. A Residential Feeling

Cathay Pacific has taken the opposite tack of the Qataris with their new lounge overhauls in key airports like Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Tokyo Haneda.

Designed by Ilse Crawford, known recently for her design of Ett Hem in Stockholm, the lounges have a warm, residential feel with soft couches, carpets, wood, and perfect lighting. Much more of a considered refuge than a statement of architectural intent. She took this approach further with the launch of the recently opened Pier First lounge in Hong Kong, which, like the lounges above, is limited to Cathay First passengers and Oneworld Emerald members only.

Because of the lower traffic, some of the softness and detail could be explored deeper, down to the original books, magazines, perfectly tended bars, and residential feel. Easier to do when you don’t have a horde of entitled business travelers scuffing the walls with their Rimowas.

3. A New Emphasis on Food and Drink

Cathay also hits the mark with food and drink. While you can have a full-sit down meal at their lounges, one of the most popular attractions is the noodle bar, which is a nice extension of the brand’s Hong Kong heritage and a perfect comfort food for the stresses of flight. In addition, a partnership with the Peninsula — another iconic Hong Kong brand — ensures that service is polished and attentive.

Elsewhere, Quantas offerings in Sydney and in Los Angeles get rave reviews for their strong coffee, perfect eggs and nicely executed Australian specialties. Not to mentioned the Marc Newson-honed attention to detail, all the way down to his custom designed flatware. Miles beyond the sad breakfast buffets and generic coffee of other lounges. On the beverage side, Etihad’s new JFK lounge offers custom cocktails — a far cry from the self-serve Dewars.

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Photo credit: Cathay Pacific's Pier First lounge in Hong Kong is more residence than airport terminal. Cathay Pacific

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