Airport lounges are booming and everyone wants to get in

Travelers are flocking to airport lounges looking for free food and drinks and, perhaps most importantly, a way to relax away from the crowds of travelers at the gate. The problem: Many other travelers are too.

Equipped with high-value rewards credit cards and fresh from years of big spending, more and more travelers are gaining access to airport lounges, transforming what were once small, exclusive spaces for a small elite into an essential stopover for millions of passengers.

The trend presents both an opportunity and a challenge for airlines and credit card companies as they market luxury to the masses. The spaces must be both exclusive and accessible to enough people.

Standard airline lounge access is free or discounted for top frequent flyers and certain credit card holders. Individual annual lounge memberships cost between $650 and $850 on major U.S. airlines, which have increased their prices in recent years.

Delta’s new Sky Club at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport

Benji Stawski/CNBC

Delta Airlines Sky Club lounges — and the credit cards that grant them access — became so popular that customers complained about the long lines and crowds at many locations. In response, the airline restricted employee access, imposed time limits and, in its most controversial move yet, announced annual visitation limits for many credit card holders – and even revoked access altogether for some credit cards.

But many customers also complained about the changes because they were too strict. This week, Delta rolled back some of the changes, highlighting how difficult it has become to find the right balance between exclusivity and access.

“Any wait is too long, and we’re doing everything we can to minimize that,” said Allison Ausband, Delta’s chief customer experience officer, last summer at the opening of a new, larger Sky Club at John F. Kennedy International Airport told CNBC New York.

She said the lounges are “by no means a profit center for Delta” but rather an “investment we are making in our customers’ premium experience.”

Delta executives said sales growth in its premium products such as business class has exceeded that of main cabin economy products.

More room

United Airlines Polaris Lounge at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Leslie Josephs | CNBC

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