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Havens of comfort

Isn’t it ironic that the concept of the airport lounge – an oasis of privileged pampering and exclusivity – should have been conceived by a man whose surname is virtually synonymous with the ordinary? A man named Smith, as it turns out: Cyrus Rowlett Smith, the president of American Airlines, who back in 1939, dreamed up the idea of a separate piece of real estate at the airport set aside for the airline’s most valued patrons.

But don’t be fooled by the name. A smith is, after all, a craftsman, an artisan who can transform everyday materials into sophisticated and imaginative works of creativity. When Smith conceived the first ever airport lounges, he set about carving out a refuge for the airline’s VIPs, whom he dubbed “admirals” – brand ambassadors with the confidence-inspiring nomenclature of ocean travel.

Seventy-seven years on, American Airlines’ nautical lexicon still applies to the carrier’s premium brands, as AA roles out its $3 billion product revamp in which Flagship and Admiral lounges feature conspicuously.

A major point of differentiation in all this is the introduction of Flagship Dining, “a first for any US carrier,” says American, describing it as “a one-of-a- kind, pre-flight meal with full tableside service and elegant dining at select gateway hubs.” The service is scheduled to debut in early 2017 at JFK with follow-on roll-outs at DFW, LAX and MIA.

“We want our customers to have a luxurious escape no matter the reason for their trip,” says American’s VP of global marketing Fernand Fernandez. “Our goal is to deliver chef-driven creations and local flavors, giving customers a five-star restaurant experience when they travel. The only thing left to do is board the plane.”

But while pre-flight dining may be new to airlines in the US, it’s not unusual elsewhere. British Airways’ First and Club Class passengers were introduced to pre-flight dining over a decade ago. Troy Warfield, BA’s director of customer experience, says: “Our First customers and Gold Executive Club members are used to the very best service and surroundings, both in the air and on the ground. The refurbishment of our First lounge at [Heathrow’s] Terminal 5 will ensure they can continue to enjoy fine cuisine, outstanding wines and champagnes and relax in comfort before flying in style to destinations around the world.”

United Airlines is also upping their culinary game at the United Club and lounge locations globally. The carrier along with their partner Sodexo has brought in some high-profile names and added training. Art Smith, award-winning celebrity chef, author, educator and owner of restaurants, is the culinary ambassador. He will provide input to menu planning and design in addition to food presentations.

Adam Segar is a well-known mixologist who will contribute to the company’s complementary and premium spirits including bartender training. And the Disney Institute is on board to provide hospitality training and support for all United Club locations.  

Pump Up the Volume

With the relentless growth of airline traffic, passengers seeking serenity and respite from the cacophony of the airport concourse are facing one of two things: either lounges get more congested or it’s time to get the builders in.

Qantas passengers traveling domestically via Brisbane will soon encounter a 30 percent increase in lounge capacity with a major revamp of the existing Qantas Club and construction of a new Business Lounge and Chairman’s Lounge. The OneWorld carrier’s First and Business Lounges in the International Terminal will be merged into a unified lounge, following similar initiatives at Singapore and Hong Kong. The Brisbane lounges are rolling out in stages throughout this year and early 2017.

Istanbul has for centuries been the crossroads between Europe and Asia, so it’s no surprise that Star Alliance partner Turkish Airlines, which flies to more countries than any other airline, has drawn on the culture, history and flavors of this most cosmopolitan of cities for inspiration in its recently reimagined, supersized new airport lounge.

“We have gathered a magnificent city together and spread it to a marvelous lounge,” says the airline. THY’s Istanbul lounge has been revamped into a 32,291-square-foot mini-city inspired perhaps by the Grand Bazaar with its labyrinth of options, including private relaxation rooms, showers, children’s playrooms and private infant rooms. Filo pastry aficionados can even watch chefs prepare that quintessentially Turkish delicacy baklava, and the CIP Lounge also includes a billiard hall, library and business center.

In January, Turkish’s Star Alliance sibling Avianca unveiled its VIP Lounge at Miami International’s South Terminal. The new 5,618-square-foot facility is available for LifeMiles Gold and Diamond Elite Program members, Star Alliance Gold Status Holders and Priority Pass members, and for Avianca’s business class passengers.

“As one of our 10 busiest carriers, Avianca carries hundreds of thousands of travelers between Latin America and Miami annually,” explains Miami-Dade Aviation director Emilio T. González. “And we are proud to help them open this spacious new lounge for our shared customers.” In addition to a mix of snacks, light meal menu and business amenities, there’s also a children’s play area and shower facilities.

Among other new lounge openings, Etihad Airways has announced that its new First Class Lounge at Abu Dhabi International Airport’s Terminal 3 is scheduled for a May debut. The new lounge is intended for the exclusive use of the carrier’s First Class guests, Etihad Guest Platinum and Etihad Airways Partners Platinum guests, as well as those staying in The Residence on board its Airbus A380 fleet.

“The new First Class Lounge in Abu Dhabi will be the jewel in the crown of our ever-growing global lounge portfolio, a showcase of intelligent design and innovation,” says Peter Baumgartner, Etihad Airways chief commercial officer. “We are confident that it will deliver a product and service which is as highly acclaimed as it is inflight.”

All for One and One for All

In November, Skyteam unveiled a new architectural concept in Hong Kong which will serve as the basis for the alliance’s lounges across the network, with Dubai and Beijing lounge revamps imminent. The designers of the concept, Paris-based Brandimage, notes that “the concept aligns with SkyTeam’s ambition to create a mindfulness lounge environment for its customers. Natural oak wood, light beige leather and elegant gray fabrics, contrast with modern white and refreshing green. This subtle harmony of elegant, warm colors endows the lounge with its distinctive atmosphere, resulting in a relaxing soothing environment.”

Stand-out features include a dedicated Yoga Room that allows customers to try SkyTeam’s pre-flight yoga program, “a first in airport lounges” according to Skyteam, and the HK lounge has a noodle bar where a chef prepares hot meals on demand.

OneWorld travelers flying out of Hong Kong International on Cathay Pacific will be familiar with The Pier, the carrier’s First and Business lounge which raised the bar when it opened in 2001. Aligned to Cathay’s new corporate identity upgrade, The Pier underwent a total refurbishment in 2015, with a fresh look designed by Studioilse, the London-based design studio led by Ilse Crawford.

The First Class Lounge seats 230 passengers within a 22,152-square-foot space. The premise of the new concept is the designer’s belief that  “wellbeing, health and comfort are contemporary luxury values, so we set out to create a lounge where the design, at every point in the experience, makes visitors feel as good as possible. It made sense to us to use the concept of a contemporary apartment to set the tone and use it as a framework for all elements of the design and operation.”

To create the impression of a domestic environment, Studioilse uses a thoughtful mixture of natural materials that is incorporated in the lounge’s centerpiece, a walnut and onyx horseshoe bar which creates “a theatrical focus for visitors to watch or sit at, alone or together.” The use of designer-name furniture and lighting by Knoll, Cappellini, Fredericia, Kalmar and Roll and Hill add to the carefully curated feel of the lounge.

Planespotter’s Paradise

At Zurich Airport, Swiss International Air Lines opened three new lounges in January to coincide with the arrival of its new fleet.

Stretching across 35,500 square feet in Terminal E, convenient to its long-haul gates, the lounges feature “an innovative zonal concept for the comfort and convenience of SWISS’s premium guests; open areas in which to sit and simply enjoy the stay, working areas with secluded workplaces and rest zones equipped with specially-developed seating.”

“Front cooking” is one of the signature elements of the lounge. Chefs prepare selected fresh meals right in front of the guest. Visitors to the Senator Lounge can access a Whisky Bar offering over 120 different whiskies. The SWISS First Lounge even features its own version of a five-star à la carte restaurant, all served with the usual clockwork precision you’d expect. After a splendid meal, passengers can then step outside onto the terrace to enjoy the great vistas of the airport and the Swiss Alps beyond, where First Class Lounge guests can even enjoy a tasty fondue or raclette served during the winter months.

Independence Day

Airlines may have created lounges in the first place, and banking card companies – notably American Express and Diners – have extended the demographic of lounge dwellers. But the real disrupters in all of this are the independent lounge providers, pushing the airlines and card players to raise their game.

With company bean counters still keeping a tight rein on expenditure, it’s not uncommon to find business travelers flying on economy tickets but more than happy to pay between $25-$50 to avail themselves of lounge facilities on a pay-as-you-go basis. Independent lounges were once spartan affairs – set apart from the masses, yes, but otherwise rather bland and austere, distinctly lacking in style. That’s all changing.

A major force in independent lounges is Hong Kong-based Plaza Premium Group. It’s the first airport lounge network to achieve ISO 9001:2008 certification to provide consistent quality of services. In addition, Jenny Zhang, Plaza’s Group operation director, describes a trick that Plaza thinks other lounge providers have missed: “We identified a significant gap in the market for transit travelers, apart from lounge service, those needing to stay a little bit longer between flights, wanting a premium hotel facility but at an economy price, bookable by the hour, with the convenient check-in times and facilities to suit.”

Plaza’s response is to extend its lounge product by creating its first airport transit hotel/lounge brand Aerotel which opened at Singapore Changi’s T1 in February. This hybrid concept is the only one in the world to feature an outdoor swimming pool, a Jacuzzi and a pool-side bar in an airport restricted zone. Two further Aerotels are in the pipeline, opening in Abu Dhabi and Heathrow by first quarter 2017.

The Aerotel initiative could be indicative of things to come; lounges that aren’t conventional lounges in that they offer a more flexible and distinctively hybrid set of options for the passenger.

Across the pond, Manchester Airport Group (MAG) – owners of Manchester, Stansted, Bournemouth and East Midlands airports in the UK, is another dynamic force in the world of indy lounges with its Escape Lounges brand. MAG is now in export mode as it starts implementing the Escape Lounge concept in the US with a $2 million 2,700-square-foot lounge at Oakland International scheduled to open this June.

“Increasingly, consumers seek simple and affordable upgrades to their daily lives and Escape Lounges provide the opportunity to enjoying high quality food and refreshment, free WiFi and newspapers in a relaxed, comfortable and contemporary environment separate from the inevitable noise and crowds of gate areas,” says Rosemarie Andolino, president and CEO of MAG’s US subsidiary. “Common-use airport lounges are still a new product in North America and we look forward to working with more airports as they look to improve their passenger amenities.”

Out of all these recent initiatives and debuts, two trends are

discernible: As marketers are busy leapfrogging each other with evermore attractive inducements to capture the bodies and souls of weary travelers, lounges are profoundly increasing the size of their footprint and they’re all striving for differentiation. But behind all of this change, the vision of C.R. Smith remains a constant: It’s all about making the passenger feel important.

By Paul Sillers