Skift Take

This could be a long-term shift in behavior, but don't rule out more corks popping if international corporate travel, and all its paid-for perks, fully bounces back.

There may be bad behavior at 35,000 feet, but there’s a calmer atmosphere at ground level.

Business travelers waiting around in airport lounges are proving to be healthier compared to before the pandemic, and airlines are reacting. Even those people who bought Pelotons during lockdown now get to keep on pedaling.

It’s a sign of the times for Virgin Atlantic’s new head of Clubhouses. The airline recently struck a deal with the exercise bike maker, with airline partner Delta Air Lines poised to install them across its U.S. lounges too.

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“The big trend is around health and wellbeing. A lot of lounges paid lip service to the idea of it, but are now taking it more seriously,” said Rami El-Dahshan.

There are more “nolo” (no alcohol, low alcohol) cocktails on offer, for example, with 50 percent of lunch options now vegetarian or vegan at the airline’s lounges, he added. The carrier’s airport spa at Heathrow has also been turned into a wellness retreat, with yoga increasingly in demand.

Breaking Habits

During the pandemic, many people found they had more time to exercise and prepare healthier, homemade food, rather than snacking at desks. That trend, for now, seems to be carrying over.

“Historically for corporate travelers, it was like, how much could I eat and drink in the lounge, and then sit in the plane and do the same thing all over again,” said El-Dahshan. “They’ll maybe still have a gin and tonic in the lounge, but have one instead in four.”

He’s been watching the return of transatlantic business travelers, although they’re mostly the type that works for a smaller company, and will book flights through online agencies rather than a travel management company.

But it’s hard to say how long the sensible trend will last. Those lounges that reopened are increasingly in demand as safe spaces for overly cautious passengers — people who arrive several hours earlier than they should, anxious about Covid-related boarding delays or complications. British Airways even encourages naps in pods at London’s Heathrow, which is arguably more hygienic than hitting the terminal’s shops and restaurants.

And expect more lounges to reopen this summer. United Airlines is gearing up and currently has 29 United Club locations open, and by the end of September all locations will be reopened. “We continue working closely with our international network planning team to monitor international travel demand and trends and are looking forward to beginning the reopening of our United Polaris lounges and international United Club locations this year,” a spokesperson told Skift.

Meanwhile, more airlines are negotiating extra deals with airport hospitality companies like Airport Dimensions and Plaza Premium Group, according to El-Dahshan. They are then able to sell more passes, and help to fill lounges during quiet times.

Virgin Atlantic isn’t currently part of any pass schemes, but may join Plaza Premium Group for its U.S. lounges, and take part in its Smart Traveller program. “They can then sell the lounges through its network, whether that’s business-to-business, or other airlines, or banks,” said El-Dahshan. “That seems to be a real trend, where airlines negotiate either with Airport Dimensions or Plaza Premium Group.”

It’s no surprise to see airlines wanting to recoup their pandemic losses through offering more lounge access, but there’s a risk that those business travelers who are currently enjoying peaceful lounges may find that experience will be short-lived.

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Tags: airport lounges, alcohol, american airlines, corporate travel, corporate travel management, delta air lines, lounges, polaris, united airlines, virgin atlantic

Photo credit: Virgin Atlantic's Clubhouse at London Heathrow offers the use of Peloton bikes. Virgin Atlantic

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