It’s Amazing — and Depressing — What We’ll Accept from US Domestic Airline Lounges

I flew United to Houston for the EVA Air inaugural festivities on Friday. Just like when I flew them earlier in the year, they were fine though my return flight delayed just shy of two hours — first a late inbound aircraft, and then a decision to operate the flight with a different plane that was even later. That happens, goodness knows I’ve had my share of creeping delays on American MD80s.

I visited the United Club on the E concourse in Houston twice — once on arrival, since I turned up at the event early enough to handle possible delays and figured i could get some work done, and then again on departure when my flight delayed.

The lounge stays open until 11:30pm, but showers close at 9:30pm. That’s worth noting for the handful of flights that leave late like the EVA Air flight I had come for and the Air China flight.

The agents in the lounge were excited to have the EVA Air service — it makes their lives easier. They all have been frustrated by United’s Houston – Tokyo flight, and figure this gives them a flight they can reaccommodate passengers on when UA7 cancels. (ANA has recently inaugurated their own Houston – Tokyo flight but it leaves just 15 minutes after United’s so won’t be nearly as useful for this.)

The lounge was comfortable, bright, and busy. I was welcomed by name when admitted into the lounge.

There are three levels to the lounge: check-in is on the departures level. The main lounge is one floor up, with a theatre room, bar and food area, and reservations desk. A floor above that is additional seating and work areas as well as showers.

Three things frustrated me most about this lounge:

  • Power outlets. They were all over, but a substantial number of them didn’t work.
  • It was dirty. The floors had crumbs all over, from late morning through evening. It seemed like they weren’t trying very hard to keep it clean.
  • Available seating was most abundant upstairs, but they didn’t have refreshments — not even water — going upstairs. So if I wanted water I’d need to leave my stuff unattended, go downstairs, and then return.

United has gotten a lot of play for its food enhancements. Which is to say that there is food. But frankly I didn’t find it very appetizing, I overheard a string of passengers complaining to each other about it as I sat nearby.

I gave them credit for having hot sauce and sriracha, although I took away that credit when I realized the sriracha bottle was empty at 11am and the same bottle was sitting there empty at 10:45pm.

I found myself missing packaged snacks.

This isn’t a knock on United. I happen to like American’s soups better, based on one data point only. But most do consider this an improvement relative to what came before. And United does have some decent alcohol (for pay).

United has just raised membership fees. Most airlines around the world do not charge at all — it’s something that comes with elite status. It’s an historical accident that US airlines charge for access. It was how they avoided discrimination claims, since anyone could purchase their way in. Once they generated revenue from it, they weren’t going to give that up. But as paying customers it’s amazing what we accept. Especially when they aren’t even getting the basics right (consistent working outlets).

And it’s even more amazing what we’ll get excited over (if this constitutes ‘improved’ food). “The soft bigotry of low expectations.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Greg – yes for sure! My point here was the contrast between hype about improvements and reality, that’s what prompted the thought. AA hasn’t really hyped any improvements. (Although I find that the AA lounge outlets are functional.)

  2. Who is paying for this? Not me.

    The domestic airline lounges may have comfortable seating in a relatively quiet environment, and agents can be quite helpful during irregular operations, but hardly seem even a decent value if you mainly look at them as a place to eat and drink.

    One can do much better even in overpriced airport eateries.

    The American Express Centurion Lounges are far superior, though they are far fewer in number. Even at that, one must access them a number of times throughout the year to remotely justify the annual fee expenditure on the credit card in order to gain lounge access.

  3. What’s more funny is that 1) this is considered a UA flagship lounge, and 2) this is WITH the new food program…sad times at UA

  4. Gary, does IAH-NRT go tech a lot? I don’t quite get the comment about the agents being excited for reaccomodation Options….surely those passengers now are being rerouted via LAX now?

  5. Sounds lime a pretty routine United experience to me. Couple hours of delays ( BTW – “late arriving aircraft” is not a reason for a delay – it is the definition of delay) and a crappy lounge. Throw is a surely employee or two and its Standard Operating procedure at UAL!

  6. Because the Olive Oil is “extra virgin” style from Irwindale, CA?? Just more typical AirSmisek cost cutting…..

  7. I’m sick to back teeth of crapoy U.S. Lounges. Recently offered a voucher for a single drink! They are mostly a disgrace. Terrible food. Poor drinks and showers almost non existent or no better than budget hotel. The U.S. Airlines in general need to visit BA or AF lounges before they even consider the Arab lounges. Then again as American friends say about poor restaurant service in the UK – you get what you deserve. They need mass boycott. Or mass complaints. But then again most U.S. Traveler saint fly abroad so dont know any different.

  8. I don’t accept it. I cancelled my membership a couple of years ago when UA increased prices while reducing beer selections. Don’t miss it at all.

  9. US domestic lounges are pathethic and I surely won’t be renewing my $450 annual fee AA Citi Executive Card which promised a year’s worth of AA lounge access. Frankly, the Lounge Club access which used to be afforded by various CCs was waaaaaay better. At least their idea of food didn’t consist of salty snacks, carrot sticks and ranch sauce. And don’t even get me started on the “free” beer at most AA and UA clubs. Bud and Coors Light? Thanks, but I’ll just have some water, please. At least in the Pacific NW those same clubs will have a micro on tap for “free”. As someone mentioned above, unless you travel constantly, you’re better off spending your money in overpriced airport restaurants rather than domestic lounges.

  10. We just spent a bunch of hours in domestic an European lounges and The BA lounges appear to be the only exception to this sadness.

    The very worst experience was the CPH apt lounge. Crowded, hot, and dirty with few power outlets and a clientele with zero aversion to picking up/putting back food with bare hands. Yuck!

  11. Certainly a first world problem, but the same can be said about the entire flying experience in USA. From the airport facility to the security process to the in-flight seats to the flight attendants, pretty much everything sucks. I’m seriously considering reducing domestic leisure flying, traveling by car whenever possible, or just increase int’l travel even more.

  12. My last visit (June 2015) to the JFK United Club didn’t reveal any huge improvements in the food offerings. (I don’t have a club membership — I upgraded my p.s. flight to Business/First and that includes club entry.)

    Later, I learned that UA is discontinuing its p.s. service to JFK and switching it to EWR (starting in a few months). A lightbulb went on and I realized that UA has little or no incentive to improve things at the JFK club.

    And yeah, there is a lot to be said in favor of individually wrapped food items. Although in theory I like the idea of a vat of soup, a) if it’s been sitting out for a long, long time, it’s not so appetizing and b) if people have possibly been throwing their leftover soup back in — ewwwww!!! No way!!!

  13. The American carriers must be terrified. And they should be. Wait till you guys get to experience lots of Arab carrier options in the states.

  14. When I was a young man, living in a different world, the UA ABE station manager came to my office to personally present me with my Red Carpet 100,000 mile plaque. I still have it on my desk. Ah, the good old days indeed.

  15. Gary, IAH has an amazing KLM lounge that admits PP users. How come you didnt go there. They have amazing booze and food. Every time I go to IAH I never go to the UA dumps and instead go to the amazing KLM lounge with amazing staff…

  16. Hilarious! My wife and I were also in the same Houston Lounge on the E-Concourse on Friday on a stopover from MBJ to LAX at 5:30pm and I happened to look into the same (empty) pot of soup that you photographed! The entire bar looked like it was ravaged by vultures and was completely unattended. The selections weren’t too bad, but there was slim pickens in regard to what was left!

  17. USA airline lounges are worse then McDonalds BA club class is better and they have computers to use for free. Lounges in US never have a single computer or copier to use. LH lounges have great food and booze but reading materials are all in German. Asians lounges F & B are great with showers

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