No longer just a place to while away the time in transit, the best airport lounges have become a five-star escape from the masses.
A good airport lounge is like a Teflon suit for travellers. Almost any delay can be handled, even shrugged off, when you’re surrounded by bistro-grade food, a fully stocked bar and creature comforts ranging from showers and a beauty spa to private rooms with their own day bed.
Welcome to the world of the first class lounge. These spacious and stylish sanctuaries are a cut above the business lounges favoured by most frequent flyers and business class passengers.
First class lounges can almost make you forget you’re at the airport. They’re certainly the best way to start any journey – and if delays turn into downtime, at least you’ve got the best and most comfortable seat in the house.
The good news – and something not all travellers know – is that most first class lounges aren’t restricted to first class passengers.
Top-tier members of the airline’s frequent flyer scheme can usually gain entry through those frosted glass doors.
For example, a platinum Qantas Frequent Flyer card will whisk you into the luxurious Qantas First Lounges at Sydney and Melbourne airports even if you’re booked into the cheapest economy seat.
You can also claim similarly shiny status in an airline which belongs to the same alliance.
For instance, Qantas is a member of the oneworld family which also includes Cathay Pacific and British Airways.
Cathay’s Marco Polo Club Diamond and BA’s Executive Club Gold are equivalent to Qantas Frequent Flyer platinum – so either of those cards will also get you into the Qantas First lounges.
Likewise, your Qantas platinum card is the ticket into lounges run by Cathay Pacific and British Airways.
The very best airport lounges go beyond ticking all the obligatory boxes and add an X-factor.
So here are five of my favourites – they’re the lounges in which I’m happy to have my flight delayed!
Qantas International First Lounge, Sydney
Say what you will about Qantas as an airline, there’s no denying their flagship Sydney International First Lounge is world-class in every respect.
Yet I’m astounded at how many Qantas frequent flyers who’ve hit Platinum grade don’t know they are entitled to use this lounge.
Designed by Marc Newson, the architecture is stunning. Dramatic wooden spars cambered like the inside of an airplane wing square off against full-length windows.
The gourmet food, wine and service are what you’d expect from an up-market bistro, and many dishes share ingredients from the restaurants of Qantas' consulting chef Neil Perry, such as Australian wagyu beef.
The X-factor here? A Payot day spa offering a free range of treatments – facials, massages, even foot and leg wraps – lasting from 30 minutes to 50 minutes.
Cathay Pacific’s The Wing, Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific has four lounges at Hong Kong International Airport. (In fact the count is five if you include The Arrivals lounge, which is past security in the arrivals hall and perfect for a quick shower, meal and recharge when you step off the red-eye.)
The star of the show is The Wing, located at the airport’s southern concourse neat Gate 2 – step through the southern security gates and veer hard left.
The Wing’s business class section, located downstairs, boasts a stylish new look following a makeover by UK architect Norman Foster’s firm of Foster + Partners, but it’s a bit crowded at the moment due to ongoing renovations of the business lounge’s upstairs area.
For now, upstairs is now the sole domain of The Wing’s first class section. The Haven restaurant offers a superb buffet around the clock while The Library is a refined ‘quiet zone’ free from blaring flat-screen TVs and mobile phones.
But what sets The Wing apart are its cabanas: a set of spacious private rooms with a rainfall shower, large soak-friendly bathtub and a lounge chair sitting on a little internal deck.
During all my Hong Kong visits I skip the Qantas lounge and head straight for The Wing’s first class area. But to sample it for yourself you’ll have to be quick: Cathay will close The Wing’s first class section for its own fix-up in early 2012.
Lufthansa First Class Terminal, Frankfurt
While most international airlines have first class lounges, Lufthansa goes one better with an entire terminal dedicated to passengers flying in first class from their home base in Frankfurt.
It’s less like a lounge than a private luxury hotel, with its own check-in desk and security checkpoints.
The restaurant is on par with what you'd expect at the world's best first class lounges but the bar, which stocks over 80 different kinds of whiskey, is something else again.
The high life continues with a separate cigar lounge and soaking baths.
So what X-factor could possibly top this? Passengers are chauffeur-driven from the terminal onto the tarmac and right up to the plane’s first-class stairway in a Mercedes S500, Porsche Panamera or Porsche Cayenne.
British Airways Concorde Room, London Heathrow
BA’s hub at Heathrow Terminal 5 is almost busting with lounges for every class of passenger, and even the first-class Concorde Room stays busy around the clock.
It sports many traits shared with other premium BA lounges, such as a champagne bar and a sprinkling of eclectic life-sized horse-wearing-a-lampshade statues (it must be a British thing…).
Travellers can dine in private booths with a full waiter service, although the Elemis spa is more geared towards a quick facial in an automated massage chair, compared to Qantas’ full-service Payot spa.
The standout among all of this? Hotel-like cabana rooms with a day bed, en suite bathroom and room service. Unsurprisingly, these rooms are so popular that they’re usually booked out for weeks in advance.
Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, London Heathrow
If the Virgin empire is built on Richard Branson’s sheer sense of fun, attitude and ‘the vibe’ then Virgin Altantic’s signature London Clubhouse has that in spades.
More boutique than boardroom, the stunning open architecture sprawls across three levels of Heathrow Terminal 3 and looks like the playroom of some indulgent billionaire from a Bond movie.
After all, why else would you have a 14 metre cocktail bar, ceiling-to-floor water wall with suspended glass Aarnio ‘bubble chairs’, a multi-screen cinema or a den with pool tables and video games?
Virgin lays on the extras with a shiny trowel, too. There’s a Bumble & Bumble hair salon, a Cowshed spa with massages, facials and wet shave for the gents; plus a spa, sauna and even St Tropez tanning booths. And of course, they’re all free.
Finnair Lounge, Helsinki
This may seem an odd one out, because the Finnish flag-carrier’s lounge is more of a top-shelf international business lounge than a ritzy first-class affair.
But in keeping with the local culture there’s a spa area with four different types of sauna, plus a swimming pool and plunge pool overlooking the runway. Now that’s an X-factor!
And while Finnair business class passengers and oneworld emerald members enjoy free entry to the spa, other Finnair travellers can pay their way in for €45 ($60).
What are your favourite airport lounges around the world, and what’s the X-factor which sets them apart from the rest?
David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.