Traveller’s Tales: A great airline lounge it is not

Because I travel so much, I do think sometimes on the travel experience, and to the efforts of the people whose job it is to keep innovating in this industry. On the topic of airline lounges, I have always found it to be a tricky trade-off between what the airlines want to make of it, and what customers would be delighted to have as an addition to their travel experience, without having to ask for it. 

There was a time, being in their top tier “Solitaire” loyalty status, I used to be very pleased and even proud of the quality of the lounges that Singapore Airlines maintained at Singapore’s Changi airport. The hotel quality shower facilities and spread of food were the biggest features of an airline lounge that in the 1980s was the benchmark of an airline that gave its customers what they could not imagine for themselves. Over the years, all good airlines have come to have the same hardware today, some even better.

For this reason, I was particularly horrified when I saw the recently reopened Singapore Airline lounges at Terminal 2, and the fact that all that they achieved after six months of renovation was to spruce up what is essentially the same lounges that they have had from the 1980s. No imagination, no rethink about the experience, no learning from the other airlines that have gone further, nothing.

The manner in which other airlines have defined their lounges so much better in recent times, is a telling commentary  on how tired Singapore Airlines has become over the years. It is also a commentary on the growing chasm between the management and the service level staff at this airlines who are fronting the disenchanted customers on everything from a continued mess of a website to useless toiletries kits and on and on and on. Let me just say that everything I learnt about being calculating and disloyal as a customer, I learnt from the management of Singapore Airlines, in the way they have treated their premium customers over the years.

Except for moving some chairs around a bit and rewashing the walls with faux wooden panels, they could have just not bothered with the renovations at all. The only new attraction that caught my attention in the renovated first class lounge in T2 was the tacky glass panel at the far end of the hall, put there to make the room look larger when it was not, in the same way some cheap hotels put glass panels into their cramped bedsits to make grumpy guests feel more space. The revamped business class lounge looked only pleasant enough to camouflage the fact that they have added even more chairs to the place.

What then makes for a good airline lounge? If you go by the definition of the worst of them – Air China, for example – all it is (both in their first and business classes) is a lot of chairs for people to sit on while waiting for their flights, where they continue to sit for long periods of time. The single most prominent item in the lounges of any Chinese airline in any Chinese airport are the chairs, a lot of them, all cramped close together. It gets worse when the chairs are occupied by less than sophisticated travellers with no manners towards others.

Three of the best (meaning, most sensible) lounges I have experienced, and that have helped me put a finger on what I think are the most important features of a good airline lounge should contain, are that of the Thai Airways first class lounge at Bangkok airport, the Virgin first class lounge at  New York’s JFK International Airport and the relatively new Qatar Airways lounge in Doha.

From these three lounges, I have come to the conclusion that three features stand out as the most important for a functionally good airline lounge. Firstly, airline lounges should be community enhancing. Secondly, they should be identity enhancing. Thirdly, they must be practically differentiated with the experience inside the aircraft itself. Let me explain each in turn.

The Thai Airways first class lounge at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok exemplifies this community enhancing feature well. Passengers who arrive at the lounge can choose from several different clusters of seating types,  depending on whether they are travelling alone, with family or on business.

There is the usual dining table type seating, the more formal seating and then there are the 5-6 “dens” (a semi-enclosed area with a large semi-circular sofa and a dedicated wide screen television screen for each den), where families or friends can sit around and lounge together before they get into the confines of an aircraft where the sitting is much more rigid. Even business people can use this last cluster to talk business in a relaxed setting or define any activity they want. You don’t feel that you are entering a room with chairs. All you sense is an opportunity to create your own informal community in several different ways to choose from.

Sure, formal business meeting rooms provide yet another cluster setting that is also practical. But taking the concept of community enhancing further, cluster seating should also include the kinds where passengers have the opportunity to accidentally interact with each other, for example in sharing or moving soft chairs around if needed, or in a shared fruit platter left on a coffee table. Done wrongly for the wrong audience, it can be messy. But done right, it can be welcoming and enhance the travel experience.

If you asked passengers if they valued such a setting, they will not know how to imagine it. In fact, passengers imagine that their own privacy and space is what they value most in a lounge. Strangely enough, I suspect they give these feedback because the biggest psychological obstacle a traveller has to overcome first is the sense of insecurity. Travellers who get past that mental inhibition will describe travel as being about accidental encounters with strangers, with an opt-in or opt-out feature attached (the best travel documentaries on television work to the same formula).

By focusing on clinical functionality of the lounge experience, the management of brands like Singapore Airlines demonstrate that they no longer value the software over the hardware. So, a fixed immovable seating configuration or meeting rooms with walls are hardware. Any airline can say, “yes we have them.” But choices in cluster sofas that can be rearranged in different ways are software.

Choices might not work in less sophisticated airports like those in China or in the United States where travel has degenerated into a mere one-class transit experience, but it would work in countries where loyal travellers are more sophisticated and the airline lounge is an extension of the travel experience.  Having said that, even in the US today, where service has been reduced to the lowest possible denominator, and where more airlines are flying cramped single-aisle Boeing 737-800s cross country, I noticed that passengers have developed very sophisticated social behaviours on their own to deal with the stressfulness of flying.

Passengers in the US have become increasingly more considerate towards each other. A whole eco-system of behaviour has arisen, which if you were not living in the US, you would be unfamiliar with – not to rush ahead of the people in front of you when disembarking, how to give way to people standing alongside the gate to collect their airside luggage, what to do when your flight is cancelled and so on. US domestic travellers have become generally more mindful of passengers around them even if they are inherently still selfish, and do this just to amortise the harshness of the overall experience for themselves. 

All regular travellers create habits that become part of their own expression of familiarity with the brand experience. Airlines do not realise that these habits and levels of familiarity are just as important assets in keeping frequent passengers coming back to the same airlines. So, if I knew there were several different things I could do out of my own free will in a lounge, I would keep going back to the same lounges.

The second critical element of a good airline lounge is recognition, and this is closely tied to the first, the sense of community. When I mean “recognition”, I mean simply recognition, and I don’t mean “status”, which is what the airlines try to harp on. Most times, the first person to greet you, and rather publicly, as you enter the first class Virgin lounge at JFK, is the bartender. Ah, the quintessential bartender. The man who has seen it all, knows all your possible secrets, and still the one who could make you feel like the only important person in the world as you walk in that door!

“Welcome, sir” he says with a generous smile, immediately inducting you into the community of strangers. The Virgin lounge also has real waitresses, who come around to ask you brightly, “what drink would you like, today?” which has the effect of making the drink taste better when it arrives.

This experience stands in stark contrast with all of the Singapore Airline lounges, where no matter how good the food is, you serve yourself with the same coldness as from a vending machine. No waitresses to indulge you, only cleaning ladies stand quietly on the side, waiting patiently for you to leave. The immaculately dressed ground crew in uniforms, who in the past did talk to passengers, today are nowhere to be seen inside the lounge. They are too busy you see, checking boarding passes at the door to make sure you did not enter the wrong lounge, and doing tons of paperwork in the ticketing office. They could have just as well stationed policemen at the doors. No one really interacting with customers inside.

I took one of these ground crew to the side, on my way out of the recently renovated lounge and told her how horrible the glass panel in the first class lounge looked, and she looked at me as if I was an ungrateful passenger. The age of interaction has ended for this airline, no matter what they did to their lounges, the effect was the same as that of a mortuary.  A good barman, or happy waitresses, trained to say just the right amount of discreet things to make the traveller feel esteemed but not exposed, is a intangible that makes the lounge a happier place.

Saying “travelling a lot lately, Mr Tan?” to a regular visitor, or “we have not seen you for a while, Mr Tamil” to a recalcitrant one, the staff collects feedback, passes messages to friends on the next flight, and so on. Even the grouchy traveller will be pampered. “Have a good flight Mr Knight!” whether or not Mr Knight actually replies. A very important feature of the Virgin JFK airport lounge is that the bar is in the centre of the room, and not along a wall on the side somewhere, so that you can’t miss the barman, and he can’t miss you.

Thai Airways and Qatar Airways take this human experience further by providing massages for premium travellers (the Thai one is free and I can’t remember if the Qatar Airlines one is a paid service). More valuable than having someone talk to you is to have some touch you, if you are a long distance traveller. Touch and talk are the two most primordial needs inside every traveller, whether or not they say so in the feedback survey forms.

The third dimension of a good airline lounge is simply to have all the practical things that are part of the travel experiences but that cannot be fulfilled in the aircraft itself. If you were like me, most times I ever only arrive just in time for my flight. So, if your lounge has a lot of useless things like more good food when they are already going to feed you in the plane, then the regular traveller would usually skip the experience.

The over-emphasis on good food at the lounges, at the expense of other more useful facilities, is the way in which some airlines hoodwink the customer to think he is getting better service when he is not. Self service food is cheaper and easier to dish out than a good human experience.

Surely, one of the most useless lounges in the world must be Singapore Airlines so-called “Private Room” in Terminal 3. It is supposed to be even more private than first class. They created this lounge presumably on the fact that the first class lounge is now inundated by the mere business class traveller who happens to have a “Solitaire” status with the airline that entitles him to the first class lounge even if he was travelling economy. The real reason, I suspect is because they had more space than they knew what to do with, and decided to play with status rather than functionality. Likewise, they had less space than they wanted to at their T2 lounges and so the lounge products in the two terminals are not the same as each other anymore.

The Private Room is for selected travellers who are actually travelling first class from T3, playing on the “status” thing. The first time I was “invited” to the private room (they discreetly give you this “invitation card” at check-in), I thought it was a big thing. But now that I have been in there several times, I have come to realise that it is just a sorry over-the-top experience of everything they should have been providing in their other regular first class lounges in the first place. Instead of waiters and bartenders as I suggested above, they have “butlers” in the Private Room, who don’t really chat with you, but take your sit-down meal order and then disappear to come back with the food.

If you thought that the Private Room is where you would meet the really top people in the local society that you would otherwise not meet in the other lounges, trust me, it rarely happens. In fact, it has never happened to me. I get to run into more useful business friends and important contacts at the regular business class lounges than I ever did at the top tier ones. Top people do not go to airport lounges – they go straight from the car to the aircraft! Top people are also not pre-disposed to be indulged in outside of their own settings. The people whom you see behaving snootily in the “Private Room” are just ordinary people like me, taking in the experience and fictitiously behaving the part. A sorry sight indeed.

The majority of the people who actually take pride in frequenting the “Private Room” are the new money types and their “tai tais” (over-the-top spouses). You can’t miss them, because they dress very poorly (surely even casual has its level of tastefulness) and believe in squeezing out every penny’s worth of the money they spend on the flight. The people and the configuration of the seating in the Private Room makes this such a fake and unhappy place. Most times, I spend less than five minutes in there.

The one time I decided to stay and have breakfast, I decided to test out their eggs benedict, which I thought they don’t serve on the plane for fear of scalding the pilot. The “butler” took my order, and then disappeared while I read the newspapers and worked up an appetite. He reappeared 20 minutes later with a long computer printout in his hands, and said to me, “Mr Daniel, my record shows me that your flight is at 8.45am. You don’t have enough time to get to your gate. I am sorry but I can’t serve you your eggs benedict.”

You can imagine how patronised I felt. It was a good 45 minutes to my flight and I am used to getting to the gate in less time than that, thank you very much. Not even in the first class lounge do they have that much information on you, and use it to manage your diet. So what if I wanted my eggs benedict and wanted to miss my flight? I complained of starvation, but the guy did not budge. So, I left, humiliated.

But later, I stumbled on the one benefit of the “Private Room” that makes it worth my while to get the “Invitation Card” in the first place – they provide you with a private buggy to be chauffeured from the lounge to the gate in style, especially if they see you are going to be late!  So, now, whenever I am invited, I go into the Private Room, steal the latest Economist magazine (which Singapore Airlines never has enough going around in the flights) and then ask for the buggy. 

This buggy thing has become a very important differentiator, given the fact that airports have become so large. Walking from the taxi drop off point to the actual aircraft can be easily a 3-5 kilometre experience these days. At Beijing airport, there are buggies you can pay just RMB10 ($1.5) to arrive at your gate without panting or looking haggard. They should have more of these, as one of the real perks for the privileged customers and a paid service for all others.

I then asked myself, in all seriousness, why would I spend three hours earlier at an airport’s premium airline lounge, instead of getting in only at the last minute and harassing the humourless “butler” all the time? I do check emails before the flight, but only if I wanted to download them into my computer instead of my mobile phone. So that is less of a reason today. The answer to this question is perhaps more pertinent to the transit passenger on a long stopover.

But if they had a gym or a swimming pool, I would consider coming in earlier because that would beat going home, working out and then heading to the airport, which never happens anyway. A swimming pool may be a bit of a fetch, although there is an under-utilised one at the airport. But a gym is not too difficult to manage and would be a diametric opposite of over-feeding the poor passengers. For the experience of touch, if there was also a pool of friendly masseurs at the gym, I would come in earlier for a real rub down before I sleep on the flight. Airlines should be thinking about the things that passengers can’t do on the actual flight but are part of the travelling experience to make the lounge experience a real addition to ordinary life. 

Other than that, you must be a pig to order a steamed lobster with charmoula butter and summer peach pie with vanilla and cardamo when you are going to have a steamed lobster with charmoula butter and summer peach pie with vanilla and cardamo in the flight!  But that is what airlines like Singapore Airlines would like you to believe – that if they fed you well, then you will not ask for the things that really mattered to your lifestyle. Customers should stop chomping away in the lounge as if they have not seen food for years, and start demanding from the airlines things that do matter. 

Airlines have been increasingly walking into the mistaken belief that what their premium passengers want most of all is “status”. Some of the wisest and wealthiest passengers are those who know the value of money and would not spend a single cent more than it would cost to get them from A to B. It is not unusual to find some really wealthy people travelling in economy class, keeping a low profile, because the money spent on an air ticket is a wasting asset – you are nothing after the flight ends. All passengers meet at the great baggage carousel at the same time, no matter what you paid for your flight. A house in the good part of town is status in life. A Lamborghini in the garage is status in life. An airline ticket is not. 

Because I have come to enjoy all classes of travel, from first to budget airlines, “status” is not at all a reason why I value my airline loyalty. But the airlines do not seem to realise this. Some of my best flight experiences have been with Cathay Pacific and other airlines where I have no “status”.  What is more important to me is that I know how to enjoy all classes, because that is what a real traveller should be able to.

One of my favourite no-fuss airport lounge experiences is when I fly budget to Jakarta, where the air ticket can cost as little as S$60 and just US$10 for unlimited food and drinks and free wireless in one of the several lounges while waiting for your flight back. The experience is exhilarating, because the so-called premium lounges at Jakarta airport offer no different service, and sometimes worse.

For short personal trips, I think it is completely unjustified to fly a premium airline. At $60 a flight, and $10-$20 for the use of a budget airline lounge, I can think of a hundred other uses for the $400 difference in fare with a premium airline. I know all the classes, love all the classes and treat them all equally as experiences in life. I also happen to know all the corners where the free copies of “Financial Times” newspapers are located at the Singapore and Kuala Lumpur airports when I am travelling on airlines that do not offer the FT. 

Cost management is everything. About 70% of my flights are paid for by clients. The average of the remaining 30% that I spend on flying every year may be higher than that of an economy class passenger, but trust me, on average, it is lower than that of a business class traveller. Unlike an employee on a company’s strict travel and entertainment rules, I have the option of mixing and matching my tickets to get the best value all the time.

For example, I don’t buy point-to-point tickets for premium flights, which are expensive, but ones with multiple stopovers, so that the overall costs are cheaper. So, a Dubai-Singapore-Beijing ticket with stopovers in Singapore both ways costs much cheaper than a Dubai-Singapore-Dubai and a Singapore-Beijing-Singapore ticket combined, and so on. Someone travelling on a point-to-point ticket in business class would be paying as much as twice as I am in first class for just the Singapore-Beijing-Singapore sector. Sure, this also means that I must fly to Dubai, which I do, and have multiple tickets that I need to keep a track of before they expire.

But put in “aspirational value”, and I think I would take my loyalty a bit more seriously. By “aspirational value” I means for example, if an airline provides free gym, or swimming pool or a massage in the lounge to its highest tier customers, but require lower tier customers to pay, that would give me reason to keep my highest tier every year by flying more on that airline. These must be for practical things that I actually value, not for more food in the lounge that I don’t eat in the first place. Even then, I would keep my options open and do what is the most practical.

The other mistaken trend that the airlines have been taking is based on the belief that customers want more “privacy”. No, they don’t! People travel to encounter other people! Many women especially would tick that they would want to be left alone when travelling. But they are the same ones who would not say no to a welcome intrusion by a good-looking stranger. So, it is all relative, but the desire to be touched and talked to is such a primordial instinct in all of us, and accentuated when travelling to strange lands.

The new highly private “suites” that some Middle Eastern airlines have and Singapore Airlines has on its new super-jumbo A380 aircraft, is based on this belief, and in my view, are just over the top. I have travelled in the Singapore Airlines Suites a couple of times now, and honestly, the loneliness of having the door to your “suite” closed after takeoff, so that it is just you and you alone for 12 lonely hours, is horrendous. Sure, the advertisements suggest that you can make love in the privacy of your conjoined suites, but for most of us, we are just fidgeting around in utter boredom, waiting to be disturbed.

As a postscript, I do want to say that I will greatly miss the first class seating in Singapore Airlines’ old Boeing 747s, which will fly the last to New York on 12 January 2012. In this aircraft’s configuration, there are just 12 first class seats in a warm, generous, leather bound cabin just behind the nose of the aircraft.  All seats are large enough to provide a sense of exclusivity, but where you are discreetly aware of the other passengers in the cabin. You can small talk with the crew just to underscore the fact that you are a privileged traveller, not a petrified hermit who has paid a lot of money to be left alone. 

Having said that, the business class suites in the Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 is really first class in most other airlines, and cheaper than the first class in the older 747 aircrafts, so that the experience continues albeit without the leather trappings and more crowded cabins. I am the quintessential traveller. As long as the airlines facilitate my need to do the things you can do only by travelling, I am happy. Some airlines just can’t, or won’t, connect the dots of a traveller’s needs, because they are really afraid about what their passengers will tell them. They think it will cost them money. 

This does not have to be a moot cocktail discussion. Singapore Airlines ended the year 2011 with a dismal international airline awards galore. Skytrax gave it the best airline for Southeast Asia award, far from the days it was the best airline in the world. I am convinced that compared to Vietnam Air, Garuda and Philippine Air, Singapore Air will always be better. The only global award it got this year was that of “Best Business Class Seat”, which underscores the hardware orientation of its strategy. Its passenger load has been in decline for the past 14 quarters consecutively. They say it’s because capacity has increased. But I think that something about the dichotomy in their strategy between managing costs and charging premium fares is in a limbo right now.

A new era requires a new strategy. But it seems clear that this airline has lost the management groove on how to take the soft skills foundations that its founding fathers set in the 1970s and honed well into the 1980s and 1990s, into the 21st century. The lounge is where the hard and the soft skills meet. Bu the lounge is also where you realise that Singapore Airlines charges 21st century prices for a 1980s experience. Try telling that to the “policemen” standing at the lounge doors dressed like airline ground crew.

 Happy holidays!


Comments

  1. Resor Till Bangkok

    kind of enjoyed this article 😉 not all of it – there are a number of points which i found a bit off however all in all it was a pleasant read, many thanks for the post! 😉 Best regards!

  2. Flyg Koh Samui Bangkok

    hello! 😛 i am at work currently, therefore i do not have very much time to write… nonetheless! I truly appreciated reading this post. It was a bunch of excellent stuff. thank you! Best regards!

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