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Travel is ramping up again after COVID-related restrictions are dropped across many jurisdictions, and along with that traffic is an increase in demand for airport lounges.

At least four new lounges have opened in Canadian airports in the past 18 months – two in Toronto by Plaza Premium Lounge, the world’s largest independently-owned airport lounge network, a completely overhauled Air France space in Montreal and WestJet’s first-ever location in Calgary.

Several have opened in the United States, too: Capital One’s Dallas locale and United’s Washington spot both opened in late 2021. Existing lounges are planning upgrades as well. In June, Air Canada will begin renovations on all of their Maple Leaf Lounges in Toronto.

Many airport lounges are available only to business and first-class passengers, frequent flyers and those with certain credit cards or memberships. However, the once-exclusive spots to kick back before your flight are becoming more accessible.

The investment in airport lounges – known for their peace and quiet, free food and drink, and added perks such as showers, nap rooms and wellness spas – is being made partly to lure back more business-class passengers (who made up a large portion of airline profits pre-pandemic). But it’s also aimed at attracting customers who normally fly economy says Kemi Wells, the founder and president of Wells Luxury Travel, a travel agency based in Vancouver.

“People are splurging on business class and premium economy more than ever,” Wells says. “[They’re] often sold out these days.” The reason? Experts are calling it “revenge travel” – people haven’t travelled in a couple years, so they’re going all out on their long-overdue vacations. “The airport lounge is the start of that journey,” Wells says.

COVID-19 has impacted airport lounges in more ways than just popularity. There are safety precautions, of course: masks, capacity limits, sanitizing, etc. Food and drink, which was often served buffet-style before March, 2020, has evolved to contactless service.

“Everything is now table service via QR code ordering, which is brought to your seat,” adds George Thoms, a Toronto-based stage manager and DJ who flew up to 80 times per year prior to March, 2020. “You are now faced with a human being while shame-ordering three orders of waffles at 4 a.m.”

There are also prepackaged to-go food options. Air Canada offers this in all of their 18 Canadian Maple Leaf Lounges, as well as in their five locations in Europe and the U.S.

Plaza Premium Lounge has opened 70 airport lounges globally over the past two years, for any passenger, on a pay-per-use basis. And some airline-owned lounges, such as the new WestJet and Air France spaces, also offer walk-in passes for economy passengers.

The market for this continues to grow and part of the reason is the pandemic itself. While some passengers may not have the resources to buy a first-class ticket to go full-on “revenge travel,” a modest $50 pass still gives people a premium experience, says Wells.

Also, many travellers are looking to avoid large crowds, and with airlines still bouncing back, fewer flights are available, which can mean longer layovers and time at the airport. But along with this increased interest in airport lounges come drawbacks for their users, the biggest one of which is overcrowding.

WestJet’s only lounge, which opened in Calgary mid-pandemic, has reached close to capacity during peak travel days, and Wells says in early March there was a lineup to get into the Air Canada lounge in Montreal. “Many had to wait or give up before their flight.”

Increasing the number of lounges is one way the industry plans to deal with the problem. Another is to widen the number of options travellers have to enjoy benefits. For example, LoungeKey, which provides complimentary admission to various airport lounges with certain Mastercard credit cards, offers food and beverage credits that can be used in some airport restaurants in lieu of visiting a lounge.

“It’d likely help with capacity issues,” Wells says of the idea. “It would also be better for the traveller. If I wanted a nicer dinner, I’d use the credit and pay the difference. Or I’d stick to the lounge if I just wanted a few drinks and some snacks. It’s more flexible that way.”

New walk-in airport lounges to try in Canada

Plaza Premium Lounge, Toronto Pearson International Airport: Landmark Lounge, Terminal 3 and Concept Lounge, Terminal 1; passes from $51. Plaza Premium Lounge opened two new lounges at Pearson airport in December, 2021: Landmark Lounge, located in Terminal 3, and Concept Lounge, a temporary lounge, in Terminal 1. Perks include unlimited food, and for an extra cost, there’s a wellness spa where you can book massages and pedicures.

WestJet, Calgary International Airport; Elevation Lounge, domestic terminal; passes from $59 The second-largest airline in Canada has entered the airport lounge game. The flagship location opened in Calgary in November 2020 and has a dedicated family space (where kids are welcome to roam and play video games), spa-like showers and house-brewed craft beer. While the lounge is open to business-class passengers and members of rewards programs, walk-in passes are also available.

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