UPDATE: See the update from United on the new change.
Unlike in much of the world, where airport lounge access is granted solely on the basis of traveling in premium cabins or airline loyalty, the U.S. legacy carriers have adopted a membership style of lounge access which permits paid members to access lounges regardless of status or travel class. United is changing the status quo and in doing so the definition of “member” on August 18, 2016 (copying Delta of course).
United Club Lounge Access for ALL Conditioned on Same-Day Boarding Pass
I saw this sign inside the United Club at JFK yesterday (a tad ironic since the JFK station is closing in October):
Does this beg the question, so what? Aren’t the only people who are going to be at an airport those with same-day boarding passes? The answer is no, which is why this is big news.
One of my favorite things to do is access a lounge after a redeye flight. Even United’s underwhelming lounges now have oatmeal, cappuccino, and clean bathrooms and thus are a fitting location to “wake up” after a 4.5hours of sleep(lessness) on a redeye. But per this policy change, which does not appear yet on United’s online club page, that will now be forbidden.
Further, it appears that are no exceptions for conference room/meetings access, which is an advertised benefit of club membership. Say you have someone important flying through and limited time — airport lounges are ideal venues for meetings and if United will no longer issue gate passes, one perk that business travellers could use to justify membership is gone. I’m actually surprised at how often I see these conference rooms in use, so it is not like they are just sitting empty now.
I have asked United for comment and received no feedback, but it appears that membership, thus, is really restricted membership and members who may use the lounges after overnight flights or for meetings will be hurt the most.
Chase Complimentary One-Time United Club Passes to Blame?
Chase hands out complimentary club passes like candy so this policy change, especially because United notes it is to “maintain an exclusive club experience”, may be a response to the fact that its lounges are too crowded with more “inexperienced” travelers, if you get my drift. I routinely observe singles, couples, and families gaining club access with the use of one-time passes but this change is much more likely to effect members and more savvy travelers.
The Upside: Less Crowded United Clubs
While help during irregular operations like delays and cancellations is the most important value of club access, tranquility is also a big selling point and the clubs just are not tranquil now. With fortress hubs and a glut of one-time passes, clubs can get out of hand when morning and afternoon departure banks roll around, meaning sometimes you cannot even get a seat let alone a power plug or decent wi-fi speeds when everyone is online at once. This will help the problem, albeit marginally.
My Solution: No One Time United Club Passes from Chase
One-Time passes present great value and United is certainly paid handsomely for them, but that is the source of lounge crowding, not members making trips to the airport just to use the club. The new policy penalizes those who bring value to United while continuing to reward those who have no loyalty to United beyond a Chase credit card sign-up bonus or infrequent travel.
I’m not sure it is practical to eliminate the two guest passes from Chase (a benefit of the MileagePlus Explorer Card), but I would instead issue only one pass per year, rather than two. That way, couples traveling together who would never really pay for lounge access would have a free visit every two years rather than each year. Singles would get access once per year, not twice.
United’s policy new policy may well have some exceptions, but if not, the new policy further disincentives the purchase of United Club membership and more narrowly restricts the definition of member. Gone will be the days of just sliding your membership card without having to present a valid boarding pass. The big notice leadtime suggests that this is not a customer-friendly change. Delta already has this policy so it should come as no surprise that United eventually be followed. Beware of what will happen to MileagePlus next.