Business class overseas flying in 2016 is improving, especially on foreign carriers like the Gulfies (Etihad, Qatar, and Emirates) and the perennially successful strivers like Cathay Pacific. I’ve written about those cabins here and elsewhere. In a range of airport experiences across the globe this year, though, the biggest improvements I’ve seen are in the sweet life to be had in some of the many international airport lounges.
Setting aside for the moment the Gulf airlines and their unique home airport lounge offerings, I found the Cathay Pacific lounge in the Bangkok airport to be, well, exquisite as soon as I crossed the threshold: tasteful indirect lighting, calming wood paneling, craftsman furnishings, and fine carpet in muted earth colors. All taken together the place confidently whispered “class” in ways the narrow confines of an aluminum tube of a flying machine can never achieve. An aura of reverent library-quiet hung over the space; no television blared to break the spell. I was grateful, as I prefer noiseless places of refuge.
The breakfast buffet was a beautifully arrayed selection of perfectly ripe fresh fruit and freshly baked breads and cakes. Somehow the croissants tasted as buttery and flaky as from the finest Parisian bakery. Every food item was near perfection, and that never happens at airports.
The lounge never felt crowded, either, though many customers were using it when I was there. I kept thinking of all the fine airport lounges that offer everything but a sense of privacy, yet somehow this one did. I long to experience another lounge which can compare to the elemental combination of ease in the Cathay Pacific lounge at BKK.
The seven CX lounges in Hong Kong (two First Class and five Business Class, including an arrivals salon) are reputed to be equally superior, though time did not permit a taste of any during three recent jaunts through HKG Airport. I did, however, sample one of the three Priority Pass lounges at Hong Kong (Plaza Premium Lounge, Terminal 1, East Hall). The facility was spacious and well-maintained, with pleasing interior irregularities to make the room feel less boxy. It lacked the feeling of complete privacy mentioned above, but was quite comfortable, with good food and beverage on offer. Altogether, not perfect, but provided a quiet place to recharge.
Not so the threadbare British Airways dump of a lounge at JFK, which Cathay premium cabin passengers use while waiting for their departures. Thus has it always been since the end of Concorde. I recall the tremendous pride BA took in their JFK lounges in previous decades. Nowadays, the place is a scuffed wreck of bad furniture, worn carpets, and over-crowding. I had trouble finding a place to sit. The food and drink were mediocre, and the zombie staff halfheartedly went through their paces. I could hardly wait to leave. BA has no shame.
Delta is gradually revamping its SkyClub lounges, and I was lucky enough to visit the one at San Francisco International not long ago right after it reopened. Soon after, I visited another refurbished DL lounge at Detroit while waiting for my overseas flight one afternoon. Both facilities now reflect a refined taste in look and feel, with the elusive sense of quiet I referred to above. While the Cathay lounge designs are traditional, the new Delta look is modern, with a white motif contrasting with bright colors and lots of light. Yet the divergent designs each achieve that quality of serenity.
Back to the Delta lounges, despite its good atmosphere, the Detroit club filled up quickly and began to feel claustrophobic, whereas the SFO club never gave off that vibe, even when crowded. The SkyClubs at DTW and SFO also offer improved buffets of comestibles, with an emphasis on fresh and healthy choices. I look forward to enjoying more SkyClub experiences as the re-dos are completed.
KLM’s big lounge in Amsterdam is airy and full of light reflecting off a Scandinavian look and feel. The openness and sprawling nature of the huge space, together with giant colorful murals of KLM 747s and Dutch tulips, make it memorable. It lacks the intimacy of the Cathay lounge at Bangkok, but manages to elicit a sense of delight in its friendliness, conviviality, and community. The food offerings at breakfast time were fresh and delicious, if nothing special, and I left feeling satisfied and happy.
Flying out of Johannesburg on Virgin in Upper Class to LHR, I was surprised that the airline had its own Virgin Clubhouse lounge at such an outlying airport in its vast network. Perhaps because it was so unexpected, I was elated to roam the interesting, light-filled space and enjoy its youthful modernity and happy staff. The emphasis on having fun permeates the mood of the place, reflected especially in its innovative drink offerings. No staid G&Ts, please, at Virgin, just like on board its airplanes.
The real shocker came, though, when I sat down to order dinner. The menu was that of a fine restaurant, and I chose the ostrich steak, which seemed appropriate for Africa.
With the meal I enjoyed a glass of superb South African Stellenbosch Shiraz red. The ostrich steak was divine, cooked to tender, medium-rare perfection, served with polenta sticks, salad, and accompanied by a delectable mint peri-peri sauce. The starter was a delicious minted split pea soup with crème fraiche, and for dessert a bowl of creamy vanilla ice cream. A memorable meal, especially since it’s surprisingly ginned up in an airline lounge.
I was frankly amazed at what Virgin has done with the space. It’s not huge, but the Johannesburg Clubhouse is elegant, quiet, and private, and in a word, classy. Back in the 1990s I was flying down there on business pretty regularly, often using South African Airways in First Class. That rated me as a guest in the vaunted SAA First Class Lounge there at Johannesburg Airport.
I have to admit that the small Virgin Atlantic lounge is better than SAA. Virgin is a bit player in the Joburg market (locals there now write it as simply Joburg, leaving out the apostrophe), and yet it is a top class facility.
By contrast I did not much enjoy the humongous Virgin Clubhouse lounge at Heathrow. It was garish by comparison, over-crowded (think: Grand Central Terminal a rush hour), understaffed, a bit unkempt because staff was not keeping up with the massive flow of users, and the food offerings were ordinary and not often replenished. I took a shower, and even for that I had to wait a half hour. But I was grateful to get cleaned up before I left the lounge early, deciding the gate was a less hectic place to wait than the lounge. The best thing I can say about the LHR Clubhouse is that it’s better than the BA lounge at JFK.
Priority Pass airport lounges vary tremendously, so I wasn’t surprised by the small facility in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I didn’t expect much and didn’t get much, but it was adequately comfortable, reasonably quiet, and, importantly, had a shower. Called the Lotus First Class Lounge at Colombo Bandaranaike Intl (Departures Terminal), it was easy to find and convenient to the gate. Okay, not the sweet life of Gulf airline clubs and lounges, but it was a welcome oasis after a long day on the steamy streets of Colombo.
Dubai has seven Priority Pass lounges to choose from, all but one a dedicated club facility. The Priority Club “Lounge at B” is unique in being part of a tapas bar and restaurant. Located near gate B26, the Cadiz Tapas Bar (“Lounge at B”) sits above the main concourse and is agreeably private and quiet. The food is excellent (eat what you please), and the seating along the outside glass balcony is comfortable and gives a sense of exclusivity. The club even has several massage chairs. I spent four happy hours in the lounge reading, working, and napping because of a long connection time returning home through Dubai in the middle of the night.
The humongous new airport in Doha, Qatar was predictably astonishing in its oil-wealth-fueled flash and sweep, but jaw-dropping even when expected. The Qatar Business Class Lounge, sited up above the madding crowd of the vast concourse, left me even more agog. The space is far larger than many entire airports, and with many different environments to try out: a unique comfort and feel for every taste and personality, and each one as expansive as most airport lounges.
The Qatar Business Class lounge (there is a separate First Class lounge which must be heaven itself) is difficult to describe because I’ve never seen anything like it. It took me awhile to comprehend it. Food and drink are everywhere with something nice for every palate. The place is so enormous that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the weather at each end is different. Set in the ceiling atop the concourse, the lounge itself has a second level above the main floor, with a large dining room up above.
Some of the spaces are frenetic, but there are so many environments to choose from that finding peace and quiet is easy. I salute the designers for incorporating so many diverse options. The airline takes care and pride to see every nook and cranny is spick and span, too.
Qatar lounges in Philadelphia and Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) were modest and mediocre by comparison, shared facilities to placate the business class traveler. Unexceptional as those lounges may be, it wasn’t lost on me that I had sweet sanctuary even in far-off places like Philly and East Africa.
Such lounges as these I’ve mentioned significantly cushion life on the international road. When traveling overseas, I seek to relieve the inevitable stress and pain that comes from flying. Contemporary airport lounges are important bookends in that overall flying experience. We are lucky to enjoy the current abundance of lounge choices.