The new Delta SkyClub at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Terminals 2 and 3 where the reimagined state-of-the-art facilities will soon welcome millions of guests each year.
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When United Airlines gate agents call the first boarding group, Ted Cohen notices something he never saw in his decades crossing the globe as a music industry executive: crowds.
The “preboarding” group includes members of United Global Services, an invitation-only status for top customers, and United Premier 1K, an upper-level tier in the airline’s Mileage Plus frequent flyer program.
“It used to be two or three people, and you used to say, ‘Who is that?’ And now it’s a small army,” said Cohen, who leads a digital entertainment consulting firm and has lifetime elite status on United and American Airlines.
Welcome to air travel’s era of mass luxury.
Travelers willing to shell out more for tickets and popular rewards credit cards are swelling ranks in front cabins and airport lounges. Now airlines are trying to handle the surge of big spenders — without compromising the appeal of their lucrative loyalty programs and most expensive seats. This year, not everyone will make the cut.
The largest U.S. carriers — Delta Air Lines, American and United — are raising spending requirements to earn some elite frequent flyer tiers that grant free upgrades, early boarding, discounted or complimentary lounge memberships and other perks.
Executives say the richer requirements are the product of the pandemic. Airlines had extended frequent flyer status without requiring travelers to meet the usual annual thresholds because would-be passengers were sidelined. In the meantime, customers kept spending on their rewards credit cards, racking up points and perks along the way.
“We feel like we’re royals even though we’re not rich at all,” said Damaris Osorio, a 27-year-old based in New York who runs a vintage clothing business.
Osorio frequents airport lounges on trips booked with rewards points that she earned through strategic credit card use and sign-up bonuses. Last year she and her fiance traveled to Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Italy, all on flights she paid for with points.
She said she cares little about sitting in the front of the plane, but has a preference for the American Express Centurion Lounges, which she gets into with one of her Amex cards. Osorio realizes she’s not alone.
“You notice how much busier it’s getting at the lounges,” she said. “I go as early as possible to maximize what I’m taking away.”
Next month, Amex Platinum cardholders will be charged $50 for each guest they bring to a Centurion Lounge. Those cardholders can currently bring in two guests for free.