Cathay Pacific Airways has opened three of its exclusive airport lounges to all its frequent flyers, including those with economy seats, on a pay-to-use basis.
Those travelling through the Manila, Melbourne and Vancouver airports can use the airline’s lounges for HK$600 (US$75) in a trial that runs until March 31 next year.
Up until now, lounge access has been restricted to those travelling first or business class, and they do not have to pay. Those holding economy tickets are not allowed in, even if they belong to the airline’s Marco Polo Club for frequent flyers.
Industry observers say the move is being tested as a potential revenue earner for Cathay, which has struggled with two years of losses. If successful, paid lounge access could be extended to more airports and passengers, they say.
Most premium airlines operate exclusive airport lounges, typically offering comfortable seats, a free flow of drinks, warm meals and snacks, and shower facilities.
Cathay’s larger business lounges feature a bartender and Hong Kong-style noodle bar. In recent years the airline has won awards for new lounges with a more homely, contemporary feel.
Its lounges are popular and can be packed at peak times, but users welcome being able to escape the crowds in airports’ public areas.
Pay-to-use lounges have become available to economy passengers at several airports, and offer respite especially to those in transit with hours to kill between flights.
The facilities, food and service vary widely, and most lounges allow paying guests access for a fixed period of, say, two or four hours at a time.
Emirates allows economy travellers to use its business lounges for US$136.50 and its first class lounges for US$262.50, while Etihad Airways offers access to its business class lounge for US$100 and to its first class lounge for US$200.
Some credit cards provide users free access to airport lounges, and there are also third party operators which run lounges that charge for entry.
Plaza Premium, for example, charges US$75 for two hours at its Hong Kong business lounge or US$90 at its first class facility, but in Melbourne and Vancouver, it charges about US$40.
Independent airline analyst Will Horton said Cathay’s trial looked like a revenue-motivated move that could please frequent fliers.
“There is money on the table for Cathay’s taking,” he said, adding that even those already eligible for lounge access could benefit as they can now pay to bring in guests.
“Being able to pay for lounge entry doesn’t significantly weaken the exclusivity of Cathay – the product stands on its own for many more reasons.”
Two of Cathay’s top-tier “diamond” frequent fliers took a dim view of having paying guests at the lounges.
“Paid admission potentially tarnishes the premium images of Cathay’s lounges,” said Manila-based flier Kesler Go, a marketing executive regularly flying business class.
He said Cathay’s Manila lounge was already crowded, and it was worse if a flight was delayed.
Chicago-based Jonathan Liu, studying in the US and a frequent business class traveller, thought the move diluted the benefits of the airline’s exclusive frequent flier programme, the Marco Polo Club.
“It’s not fair to diamond members,” Liu said, referring to the club’s highest level of membership.
Passengers have to spend anywhere between HK$200,000 and HK$250,000 to obtain diamond membership to enjoy perks such as access to first class check-in desk and lounges, boarding aircraft first and getting luggage off the plane quickly.
A Cathay spokeswoman said its pay-to-use lounge trial was part of the airline’s ongoing efforts to make its Marco Polo Club membership more rewarding.
“The paid lounge access offer is for all Marco Polo Club members – which includes from lowest to highest: green, silver, gold and diamond, regardless of travel class. Members of all tiers can pay for their companions for lounge access and there is no limit to the quota.”
Loss-making Cathay Pacific has been drumming up new ideas to raise money in the face of competition from mainland Chinese airlines and budget carriers.
In May this year, it began allowing economy passengers to pay up to HK$300 to reserve a seat. It has also expanded the range of items passengers can pay for, from booking a seat with extra legroom to having more baggage, and auctioning business class seats to economy travellers.
It also raised the charge for booking an extra legroom seat to HK$1,400 from HK$1,140 and its unaccompanied minors service now costs HK$800, up from HK$500.