Lounging around: airport lounges then and now


Perfectly coiffed men in Brooks Brothers suits and women in Dior dresses sipping Champagne and listening to some smooth jazz. We often think of the 50s and 60s as the golden age of air travel, but how have airport lounges changed over the years? Are we looking back with rose-colored glasses?

Airport lounges date back even further than you might think. The first ever was the Admirals Club lounge at New York’s LaGuardia Airport way back in 1939, in a conference room the airport leased to American Airlines. Admirals Club was the airline’s promotion for VIP customers, and the lounge was the first time the club occupied its own physical space.

The first Admirals Club had a fully stocked bar (bartenders were called “stewards”, receptionists “skippers”) but that’s about it. The lounge’s function was to provide top-tier customers an escape, and this didn’t include many of the frills that we take for granted today.

It was also more exclusive than today’s lounges. It began as an invite-only venue but switched to a paid membership model after a lawsuit, with the rest of the lounges that had popped up in the meantime following suit.

It was the early days of flying, so the terminals didn’t see as much traffic, and security standards weren’t nearly as high as they are now. This made lounges more like an exclusive reward that airlines used to retain valued customers than a necessary escape for travelers.

Over time, as flying itself became more accessible to the general public, so did airport lounges. Today, the paid membership model still reigns supreme, but there are now also pay-per-use options and providers that operate independent of airlines. It is offered bundled with other services, for example a bonus feature of signing up for a certain credit card.

As the customer base multiplied, so did the amenities. Lounges now offer not just a bar, but entire restaurants, internet access, TVs, flight update displays, private work spaces, children’s play areas, and even spa services. There are now whole terminals dedicated to First Class passengers, and lounges with doors leading directly to the plane. Quite an improvement over just a “steward” pouring you a cocktail.

The design of the lounges has also progressed, modernizing with a greater focus on relaxation. A lot of today’s lounges also use cultural motifs and feature local artists.

Overall, the changes boil down to better service that’s easier to access, a win for both frequent and infrequent flyers. Given the evidence, the golden age of travel, at least as far as airport lounges are concerned, must just be right now.

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