Great expectations

posted on 25th April 2018

First-class passengers expect to be bombarded with luxury items when they enter an airport lounge, but that’s no longer enough to satisfy their whims, writes David Smith

Designers today have to think of more sophisticated ways to offer up the ‘exclusivity’ that is the hallmark of a first-class lounge. Alex Duncan, a lounge designer with London-based consultancy James Park Associates (JPA Design), says there is more competition than ever before and designers have to think imaginatively to stay ahead.
“Luxury lounges still must have the list of conventional attributes that wealthy passengers would find in a five-star hotel, which provides a sense of opulence and exclusivity. They expect a luxurious lounge decor and they want to be bombarded by temptations, such as goody bags, spa treatments and fine dining. But expectations have evolved in the past few years and it’s now as much about the types of experience we can offer them,” he says.
Trends in lounge design are strongly influenced by what’s happening in wider society, and modern designers have to cater for today’s obsessions with ‘natural’ environments and personal wellbeing. The methods of achieving this goal include using natural materials, installing daylight lighting and providing rooftop gardens. Passengers may still expect maître d’ service and champagne bars, but they will also now insist on healthy fresh food options, as well as access to gyms, massage therapies and spa facilities.
“Part of JPA’s design work is to help map out those experiences, creating the stage on which the service can be acted out. We’re very much about the physical environment and its practicalities, but we also have to think about what it feels like to be in that space,” says Duncan.
The movement towards creating natural environments is seen worldwide. One striking example is in the Qantas First Class Lounge at Sydney International Airport, where the tropical botanist Patrick Blanc installed 8,400 plants and European oak sculptures decorate the relaxation spaces. Similarly, Cathay Airlines Pier Business Class Lounge in Hong Kong invites passengers to enter through the Tea House, described as a “wellness area” where passengers can relax while specialists serve a wide selection of teas.
JPA Design did not start life as an airport lounge developer. Its first job, back in 1982, was to provide a design for the carriages of the Venice Simplon Orient Express luxury train. It went on to create other train interiors, whilst at the same time developing a reputation as a designer of luxury hotels, including several projects for Taj Hotels.
It wasn’t until 1998 that JPA entered the aviation sector, first planning a first-class cabin and seats for Singapore Airlines, then redesigning the carrier’s first-class lounge at Changi Airport to be more like a five-star hotel. A decade later, JPA began creating lounges for Middle Eastern airlines, as well as developing 10 luxury lounges for Air China in major Chinese cities. Today, its customers include Singapore Airlines, American Airlines, Air China, Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, Gulf Air, US Airways, Oman Air and Japan Airlines.

The ‘wow’ factor
“For us, one of the keys is to create a sense of occasion,” Duncan explains. “That’s easier to achieve in the luxury train and cruise ship markets, as passengers go on the journey for the journey itself. But we try to capture some of that experience in airport lounges so that when passengers return from Italy they’re not just talking about Pompeii. They say, ‘Wow, you should have seen the lounge. I’m never flying with anyone else’.”
To achieve a sense of occasion it is essential to create a strong sense of place, he continues. This involves researching, in depth, the culture of the national airlines – a process that can take several months. JPA then subtly introduces elements of the architecture, cuisine, and artistic legacy into its designs.
For example, for the Gulf Air Falcon Gold lounge at Terminal 4 Heathrow, there are echoes of the geometric forms of Bahraini architecture and finishes relating to Bahrain’s history of pearl fishing. The intimate entrance and big courtyard also mirror the style of Arab dwellings, Duncan says. JPA Design’s projects for Air China echo Chinese culture in similar ways. For example, both the 20,000ft2 business class lounge and the 7,000ft2 first-class lounge at Shanghai Pudong Airport include Chinese textiles and colours that allude to those of Air China’s branding.
The pressure on designers to distinguish their luxury products has intensified in the past decade, says Errol McGlothan, director at Airport Lounge Development (ALD), which is part of the Collinson Group, and owns the largest network of independent lounges in the US. “Lounges today are barely recognisable as the same product as 15 years ago. There are so many services that are customised to the needs of passengers,” he points out.
One way in which the lounge market has changed, he argues, is that the idea of luxury is no longer the preserve of first-class lounges. There has been explosive growth in the development of common-use lounges that can be accessed by anyone who pays a fee on the door. Many of them offer services that would once have been considered luxuries, such as spas, gyms, hotel rooms, local menus from top chefs and indigenous art.
Even within the common-use lounge market, there are different products, some more exclusive than others. ALD has a network of 15 independent lounges in the US, and a further two in the UK. They are available to holders of Priority Pass and other premium products, as well as travellers with 25 partner airlines and pay-as-you-go passengers.
“The market has become highly sophisticated as a result of providing more choice. It means it’s difficult to make simple distinctions about what is a luxury lounge. There are so many gray areas,” says McGlothan. “First-class passengers use many of our independent lounges and we offer lots of products that elite passengers would expect, such as spas, designated zones for different passenger requirements, and the sense of place that comes from local art and local chefs. I steer away from saying what’s premium and what’s not premium as it’s more nuanced than that.”
One of ALD’s US lounges, The Club MCO at Orlando International Airport, has won acclaim for its business facilities, including individual rooms for private phone calls. The Club MCO offers a Kids Zone, Refresh Zone, Rest Zone and Replenish Zone. Meanwhile, The Club BWI, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, offers complementary items and services such as a buffet with an antipasto deli bar, a premium selection of alcohol and use of business facilities.
McGlothan says that many of the global trends in lounge facilities were initiated by the Virgin Clubhouse, in London, which set new standards by incorporating a spa, a luxurious bar, and table service in 1993. Virgin has trialled all kinds of ideas over the years, such as billiard tables, hot tubs, drive-through check-ins and dedicated security lines. Whenever these ideas have appealed to passengers the industry has taken them up.
“Virgin has always been a pioneering brand that has shown how to improve the experience of premium passengers,” McGlothan says.

Extravagant
Despite the rising standards of luxury in common-use lounges, there are still airline lounges that take the concept of exclusivity to another level.
One important element is the quality of the furnishings. Passengers in Emirates’ first class lounge at Dubai Airport, for example, bask in an opulent environment that has Italian marble floors, gold-plated clocks from Geneva, designer showers and bathrooms. And Qatar Airways Al Mourjan Business Lounge at Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, has a ceiling-to-floor crystal chandelier that hangs over a beautiful reflecting pool.
Meanwhile, Etihad First Class Lounge and Spa at Abu Dhabi International Airport introduces a note of excess by taking the concept of separate lounge ‘zones’ to another level. It offers 16 unique areas, including an à la carte restaurant, fitness room, cigar lounge, spa, style and shave barbers, nail bar, TV room, secluded relaxation room, and children’s play room.
The facilities at Turkish Airlines’ CIP Lounge at Ataturk International Airport, in Istanbul, strike a comparable note of extravagant luxury. The two-storey lounge features 5,000ft2 of flat screen TVs, a cinema room, and live music from two grand pianos. Kids also get their own playroom, whilst adults are offered a golf simulator, a movie marathon, or relaxation in their own private suite. Free-roaming masseuses provide complementary massages.
“These lounges have to be pretty special as the clientele are paying US$8,000, or even more, for their tickets. After all, where are these people spending time when they’re not at airports? They would be eating in Michelin-starred restaurants and staying in five-star hotels,” points out John Lau, MD of Firefly Lighting, which provided the lighting for the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong first-class and business lounges. “They can’t afford to fall short of their rivals’ lounges as it would mean bad publicity. Whole communities of bloggers and vloggers travel the world reviewing lounges on social media.”
Lau and his team work closely with architects and interior designers to create the right feeling. There are separate solutions for different materials and for each zone. Lighting controls provide flexibility depending on the season and time of day.
Lau says the company’s lighting strategy for lounges is distinct from its approach in restaurants. “When we design lighting for restaurants we’re nudging the guests towards ‘mindless consumption’ by reducing their cognitive awareness of expenditure so they’re just being in the moment. With lounges, it’s far more about creating a relaxed and luxurious ambience,” he says.
Lau understands the tastes of wealthy, first-class passengers, but he does not necessarily share them. When he travelled first-class with Emirates from Heathrow Airport, he was picked up from his house in a limousine and taken directly to the lounge at Heathrow. “Personally, I found it weirdly isolating even though it takes all the stress out of it. The first-class lounges tend to be more sparsely populated, too. But I can understand why some people get used to that level of exclusivity,” he says.