The mid-20th century is fondly remembered as the “Golden Age” of aviation. Intrepid travelers took to the sky with a sense of wide wonderment, sporting their Sunday bests — regardless of the day of the week. Even flight attendants were dressed to the nines. Destination be damned, getting there in lavish style was the name of the game.
Fast-forward to 2017. These days, air travel is more commonly associated with $8 glasses of middling Merlot in plastic cups, cattle cars, and service philosophies reminiscent of a routine day at the DMV.
But nostalgia fetishizes the past. Our collective reveries of sharp-suited passengers smiling at glamorous flight attendants are romantic, if not unreasonable. Moreover, they diminish the joy of the here and now. A level-headed look at the state of modern air travel reveals a layer of luxury hidden in plain sight.
Consider the evolving airport lounge. Never before have these esteemed enclaves offered the breadth of amenities seen today. Never before have they been more accessible to the masses.
All this is to say, if you’re dreading your next trip to the airport, something is afoul. And it can be easily corrected. Live the lounge life, straighten up, and fly right.
For years, London’s Heathrow Airport has led the way in the luxury lounge scene. With spas, Gordon Ramsey-helmed brasseries, and decadent dens lined with reclinable seating, it always catered to a certain subset of the travel population — namely, the rich. But nowadays, these types of privileges are available to travelers of more modest means.
“We have seen an increase in popularity of paid-for lounges, in both arrivals and departures,” observes John Arbuckle, Heathrow’s head of property. “Passengers can either book in advance, or pay on the door, and can treat themselves to a shower or hot meal and a quiet work place so they feel refreshed and prepared for their next meeting.”
Purchasing access to the Delta lounge in Terminal 4 of New York JFK is just $59 for a single day. That price includes complimentary snacks and an array of house beers, wine, and a decent spirits selection (think Bombay, Bacardi, Jack Daniel’s). Wines chosen by Delta’s Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson are available for an additional, reasonable $7 to $22 per glass.
United is in the process of updating its lounges and has already opened an invite-only, speakeasy-esque dining concept called Classified. Status fliers are selected at random and invited to drink and dine in an unmarked space behind Saison restaurant in Newark’s Terminal C. “When we arrived, there was a dedicated team that checked us in and led us into this gorgeous, intimate space with views of the runway and city,” says Kate Kenny, a frequent flier among the first to experience the new speakeasy.
American Express’s proprietary fleet of luxurious lounges, Centurion, launched in 2013 and has seven locations nationwide. Each offers an a la carte menu created by a locally relevant celebrity chef (e.g., Scott Conant of Scarpetta restaurant in Las Vegas, Oxheart’s Justin Yu in Houston, etc.) plus a cocktail list developed by PDT mixologist Jim Meehan and wines chosen by sommelier Anthony Giglio. The Centurion Lounge in San Francisco also features wine tastings featuring five pours of 18 northern Californian bottles. Access to Centurion lounges is complimentary for Centurion members, American Express Platinum and Business Platinum members.
“Airport lounges have evolved in much the same way as hotels,” explains Anita Frankel, president of ANF Travel Inc., in Manhattan. “Outdoor terraces, waterfalls, balconies overlooking terminals featuring complimentary WiFi, premium cocktails, and extensive buffets are becoming the norm.”
American Airlines launched its Flagship First Dining Lounge at JFK this spring, with plans to expand to LAX and Miami later this year. The a la carte fine dining experience is available exclusively to international and transcontinental first-class passengers, free of charge. Drinks include cocktails created by Pamela Wiznitzer of New York City’s The Seamstress, and wines chosen by master sommelier Desmond Echavarrie. A small clipboard presented at the end of the meal, which would typically carry the bill, merely says, “Thank you.”
But that level of exclusivity seems like coach class in comparison to the celebrity treatment now available at LAX’s Private Suite. Announced in April, the membership program includes VIP parking at the airport and a BMW escort to your own dedicated terminal entrance. Once inside, you await your flight in a personal suite in the club’s $22 million facility, which includes complimentary top-shelf spirits, snacks, and made-to-order dishes off of seasonal menus from LA chefs.
Private Suite services at LAX aren’t cheap: Membership starts at $7,500 a year, plus $2,700 for each domestic flight and $3000 for each international flight.
What the experience emulates, however, is an even pricier endeavor: the Fixed-Base Operator, or FBO, used by private aviation.
“Fixed-Based Operators are pretty much identical to airport lounges, but they let you drive up to the plane,” says Matt Morley, a professional pilot. “People pull right up at departure time and get on. The plane waits for you, because you paid for it. You don’t wait for the plane.” At least in an ideal world.
Since private flights are subject to the same air traffic constraints as all other aviation, airspace delays — particularly in dense regions such as the Northeast — can result in wait time. Which means the FBOs need to come correct with their lounge game.
“What’s happening now is there are just so many options and much more competition created within private aviation,” notes Anuj Patel, director of strategic development at Pontarelli Companies, an exclusive ground transportation service based out of Chicago. “Super luxurious amenities and lounges in the waiting areas are paramount now more than ever before. Thirty percent of our business is private aviation.” Additionally, fractional ownership programs like NetJets “make flying a private plane more affordable,” Patel says.
Now, FBOs have to fight for their clientele, resulting in increased amenities for flyers. On-site chefs or bartenders, personal concierges, and hot tubs are not out of the question.
Across the board, domestic aviation is still struggling to keep up with its international counterparts. Turkish Airlines’ flagship lounge in Istanbul airport is equipped with a movie theater, form-fitting beds, pool tables, and help-yourself drinks carts loaded with everything from Woodford Reserve to Johnnie Walker Red to bottles of arak. Singapore’s Changi Airport has an actual pool, along with an indoor aquarium, butterfly gardens, bar stations, and free-flowing Charles Heidsieck Champagne.
A broad cataloging of contemporary lounges exposes the under-appreciated evolution of modern air travel. Cutting-edge technology creates amenities no previous generation could have imagined — and more people are flying today than ever before.
So don’t dwell on older generations’ odes to some bygone aviation era. The golden age of air travel is now.