A radical departure

Airport lounges are changing to meet the demands of discerning travellers.

Ten years ago the term “lounge” was something of an overstatement for what was essentially an unglorified waiting room at airports. Yet, this necessary inconvenience to both operator and traveller has suddenly become hot property, as operators grapple with the dilemma of, on the one hand whisking passengers expediently to their transport, and on the other the desire of operators to exploit passengers commercially. A stream of captive customers with no choice but to linger, is retailer (and operator) heaven.

Maintaining the passenger-to-seat ratio is a management requirement, but one which can now also be funnelled into food and beverage establishments, thanks to recent changes in legislation. “Lounge seating will always be there, but the format in which it is delivered will be more sophisticated,” says Robbie Gill, director of Design Solutions, since “business travellers do not always have access to business lounges.” In Heathrow Terminal 3, for instance, which deals with a high level of affluent consumers travelling long-haul, clusters of leather seats are interspersed among big-brand retailers, giving more of a lounge, and less of a bus station, feel.

Business and first class lounges are also becoming important to airlines eager to draw this lucrative upper-end market away from their rivals. For which stressed passenger is not seduced by a comfortable, attractive oasis away from the thronging hordes, complete with the best choice of free drinks and complimentary canapés? At the Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow Terminal 3, passengers regularly book in three hours early to get a drink, have a bath and get a massage or haircut.

The stakes are getting higher as the air travel market continues to grow. London is the biggest aviation market in the world, with more than 100m passengers flying in or out annually. Low-cost airlines such as EasyJet and Go Fly have created a whole new generation of travellers, and not just among the cost-conscious. The profile of users stretches from families on a budget to dual-income-no-kids professionals popping to Paris or Prague for the weekend on a whim.

The BAA group, which operates seven UK airports, including Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted, expects the rate of air traffic growth in the current year to be more than 5 per cent, and projects that by 2015, 80m more passengers will be soaring over the South East.

Demand will partly be met by the Richard Rogers Partnership-designed fifth terminal at Heathrow if, as expected, the Government grants it planning permission next year. But eventually, three or four more Heathrows will be needed. In the meantime, regional airports are sprouting international extensions – Bristol recently gained a sophisticated, glazed double-height terminal, courtesy of YRM Architects.

Heathrow Terminal 3 and Gatwick South Terminal both underwent major expansion work last year. London Luton, one of the fastest growing airports of the past few years, has doubled its check-in capacity recently from 30 desks to 60, with an airy Foster and Partners-designed terminal. By the end of 2001, Stansted’s terminal building will have expanded by half as much again, and even the compact “Dorchester” of London airports, London City, has just announced a £20m expansion plan to increase passenger numbers by 150 per cent.

The common denominator to all of these schemes, besides the aim of increasing passenger capacity, is the provision of more retail space. Departure lounges are becoming more like shopping malls with every visit, and this is no accident. “We are now entering a third generation of airport terminals, in which the boundary between transit hubs and shopping mall is totally blurred to consumers,” says Fitch Design chief executive officer John Harrison. “Britain is leading the way, making US airports look like bus stations from the dark ages,” adds Gill.

The biggest competitor to retail-oriented public lounges is the airlines themselves, as they invest in bigger and better business lounges, with interior solutions that owe a lot both to the office design and grooming sectors.

No more perceived as a limbo space, airport lounges are now plugging into the whole wellbeing experience. And whether it’s the fun and funky image of youthful airlines such as Virgin, the gentleman’s club atmosphere of US airline lounges, or the Zen-like calm in the long-haul halls of Far Eastern airlines, business and first-class loungers have never had it so good.

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