Not an elite frequent flier? A new breed of airport lounges has a spot for you

Around the country, travelers looking to relax with a snack and a drink before their flight are finding more and more options to visit an airport lounge, even if they don’t have elite status on one of the country’s major airlines. 

It’s part of a growing nationwide trend that’s seen third-party lounges — already popular at airports across Europe and Asia — taking up residence at U.S. hubs, including DFW International Airport.  

These lounge operators are aiming to capitalize on the shifting airline loyalty landscape and growing numbers of international visitors to the U.S. to attract an audience of lounge-savvy travelers in need of a place to unwind.  

In the process, they’re making lounges more available to the traveling public, with access based on your willingness to pay a moderate fee, rather than your airline status.  

Among the companies leading the charge is Plano-based Airport Lounge Development. It has opened 15 lounges, branded as The Club, at U.S. airports over the last decade, with most opening within the last five years and more to come in 2018 and beyond.  

“We want to be wherever there’s a need,” said Nancy Knipp, senior vice president at Airport Lounge Development. “We want to continue to grow wherever (it’s) possible. In the U.S., we could have 30 lounges very easily. Globally, we could get upwards of 50 lounges.”  

A subsidiary of the London-based Collinson Group, Airport Lounge Development has about eight employees at its North Texas office.  

One of the company’s next major initiatives will play out close to home. By the middle of next year, it plans to open a 2,500-square-foot lounge at DFW Airport’s Terminal D in a mezzanine space previously occupied by a Three Forks restaurant. DFW is where Airport Lounge Development got its start, with a smaller lounge facility in Terminal D that’s been open since 2006.  

But Knipp, whose previous job was overseeing Admirals Clubs at American Airlines, said the new facility will be a significant upgrade from the previous digs, representing the company’s evolution over the last decade.  

Although it’s still in the design phase, the new space will feature standard lounge amenities like hot and cold food options, a selection of beer, wine and spirits, and spaces to relax or get some work done.  

“We want them to walk away recognizing they’ve had a unique hospitality experience. With all due respect to airports, hospitality is not what people always expect in the journey,” Knipp said. “It’s a respite from the concourse, but at the end of the day, it’s got to be more than that.”  

Filling a gap  

Airport Lounge Development’s push comes as airline loyalty is being tested. Carriers continue to tweak how frequent-flier miles are earned and spent, while industry consolidation has led to more crowded lounges and left upgrade lists packed with elite-status holders all jockeying for a limited number of available premium seats.  

The result is more people shopping based on the price of a ticket, if their home airport offers more options beyond a dominant legacy carrier.  

“One of the interesting wrinkles that independent lounges offer is freedom to travelers who are no longer as loyal to an airline or don’t see the value of being loyal to an airline,” said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group.  

“It used to be you’d stay loyal to an airline because you’d get screening priority, better seats, priority lounge access. Now that’s less the case.”  

Harteveldt said the target audience for these types of third-party lounges is typically travelers without status on an airline or passengers who don’t have premium tickets that qualify them for lounge access.  

“Even if travelers seek a low fare, it doesn’t mean they welcome discomfort or inconvenience,” he said.  

Airport Lounge Development is also building its presence at airports without a dominant hub carrier, like Las Vegas or San Jose, Calif., and is looking to capitalize on a continued influx of foreign passengers traveling on carriers that don’t have many, if any, lounges in the U.S. The company has lounges in traditional hubs like Atlanta, DFW and Phoenix, along with spaces in cities such as Orlando, Fla., Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.  

“They’re adding service into U.S. markets they didn’t traditionally travel to. … They’re bringing an entire audience full of customers that are used to having lounges,” Knipp said.  

Airlines’ response  

Airport Lounge Development isn’t alone in seeking to make airline lounges more accessible to the masses, with American Express’ luxe Centurion Lounges among the notable competitors.  

But while American Express’ lounges cater to its well-heeled card holders, Airport Lounge Development’s clubs are available to anyone willing to put down $40 for a day pass.  

Airport Lounge Development also hopes to leverage the growing popularity of Priority Pass, another Collinson Group company that provides lounge access at 1,000 spots around the globe. The pass can be purchased with an annual membership, but is more commonly obtained by travelers using travel-centric credit cards.  

“One of the reasons our parent company created Airport Lounge Development is to create more of these lounges that their guests can go into,” Knipp said.  

Legacy carriers aren’t sitting idly by, either, with hundreds of millions of dollars being invested to upgrade their own lounges.  

That includes an increased focus on ultra-premium travelers, with American Airlines opening new Flagship Lounges at airports around the country that offer even more amenities than the more widespread Admirals Clubs. Construction on a Flagship Lounge and accompanying premium dining room is set to begin next year at DFW Airport’s Terminal D.  

“It’s very interesting to watch,” Harteveldt said of the lounge developments. “It’s no longer the invited few or the road warrior that have access to (airport) lounges.”

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