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World's Best Airport Lounges.

World's Best Airport Lounges

Ask most people why they buy a first-class or business-class airline ticket, and the odds are that one of the most important reasons is that those pricier tickets provide automatic access to an airport lounge.

For both business and leisure travelers, airport lounges can smooth away the rough edges associated with air travel these days. These lounges are, for the most part, the last bastion of civilized behavior within commercial aviation. Sure, you might have to remove your belt and be checked by a bored security guard, but this unpleasantness can be mitigated by the promise of soon finding yourself greeted like a VIP instead of a potential terrorist, finding a quiet place where you can check e-mail, hold a quick business meeting or even take a nap.

Yet while nearly all major airports offer lounges, not all lounges are created equal. As many travelers can testify, Asian carriers really know how to pamper their passengers. At Hong Kong International Airport, Cathay Pacific Airways' The Wing lounge offers first-class travelers private cabanas with private showers and chaise lounges. In Bangkok, Thai Airways' Royal Orchid first-class lounge provides Thai massage, meeting rooms and complimentary transportation from a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes.

While Asia has the lion's share of luxe lounges, the Middle East also has some worth bragging about, and certain cities in Africa, Europe and even Australia hold their own in lounge rankings. But according to Skytrax, a London-based company that monitors international airline and airport quality levels, not a single American airline offers a first- or business-class lounge that made it to the top ten of their international rankings.

In a survey released last week, Skytrax ranked over 35 first-class lounges and 75 business-class lounges around the world, based on the standards at the flagship lounge at the airline's home airport. Skytrax's 38 full-time auditors log thousands of hours a year evaluating airlines, airports and airport lounges, taking breaks of only a few hours between flights that last thirteen hours or more. "We want to evaluate it from the perspective of someone who is tired and angry," says Peter Miller, director of marketing at Skytrax. "It's also the best way to evaluate seat comfort. When you travel 23 hours in a day, you know what is comfortable and what is not."

To reach its conclusions, Skytrax looks at dozens of criteria including such relatively obvious factors as how far a lounge is from the departure gates and whether it has Wi-Fi, showers or hot food, to more esoteric and cultural considerations, such as how a Japanese business person would react to the fact there are no slippers--just socks--offered in a flight pack.

The top ten business- and first-class lounges in Skytrax's survey were affiliated with airlines from over ten different countries, but the likes of U.S.-based carriers, such as American Airlines (nyse: AMR - news - people ) and Continental Airlines (nyse: CAL - news - people ), were nowhere to be seen.

"I'm personally not that surprised," says Andreas Schimm, manager of program development at Airports Council International, a Geneva-based nonprofit organization which represents over 1,530 airports in 175 countries. "There's a variety of reasons, whether it's financial, a service attitude, a different appreciation of premium customers or the fact that American carriers have been in the business for a long time and don't change their services and procedures as much as newer carriers do."

However, U.S. airports are still among the busiest on the planet, with more than 650 million passengers flying commercially each year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and some lounges are better than others. Although the best U.S. lounges did not make Skytrax's top ten, sorted the Skytrax data regionally to identify the top U.S. lounges. In our annual compilation of the best international airport lounges, we list the top two business-class lounges and top two first-class lounges in each of six regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North America and South America. (In Africa, one only airline, South African Airways, had lounges worth mentioning.)

Aram Gesar of AirGuide Magazine and AirGuide Online estimates that of the 460 million people who took an international flight in 2004, approximately 3% flew first class, 11.3% flew business class and 85.5% flew coach. Gesar expects the combined percentage of people flying first and business class combined will climb steadily over the next few years, even while many airlines worldwide are cutting first-class capacity and jazzing up their business services, introducing flatbed seats and serving gourmet food.

"A lot of first-class and Concorde passengers have migrated to private jets, since the increase in cost is marginal and the absence of security hassles is a huge benefit," says Gesar. "With first class being folded into business on many commercial airlines, the overall volume of first- and business-class passengers is increasing globally, especially in China, India and the Middle East."

Meanwhile, the standards of the people buying those pricey tickets have gotten higher. Skytrax has been conducting their survey of airport lounges annually since 2000. "It was prompted by demand from airlines and airline management," Miller says. "They needed some sort of annual study looking at the quality of the lounge product--the demands and the trends. The importance of executive and first-class lounges has risen dramatically. The more chaotic airports become, the worse security and the longer the lines, the more need there is for these facilities."

In the U.S., most first-class passengers are business-class ticket-holders flying on their companies' dime who get bumped up at the gate; there isn't the demand for premium-level airline service in the U.S. that there is in other countries. On some international flights, for example, it's common for the entire first-class section to be occupied by a single Arab family, including the nanny and infant children, all of them paying in full. While many might be reluctant to pay the $8,500 per person it takes to fly first class from London to New York for themselves, never mind the nanny, for long-haul flights beyond the range of most private planes, many of the world's wealthiest are more than willing to pay.

Top Ten First and Business Class Airport Lounges

Best First Class Lounges

1. Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong International Airport)

2. Thai Airways (Bangkok International Airport)

3. South African Airways (Johannesburg International Airport)

4. Asiana Airlines (Seoul Inchon International Airport)

5. Malaysia Airlines (Kuala Lumpur International Airport)

6. Lufthansa (Frankfurt Airport)

7. Singapore Airlines (Singapore Changi International Airport)

8. Qatar Airways (Doha International Airport)

9. Gulf Air (Bahrain International Airport)

10. Swiss International Airlines (Zurich International Airport)

Best Business Class Lounges

1. Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong International Airport)

2. Virgin Atlantic (London Heathrow International Airport)

3. Gulf Air (Bahrain International Airport)

4. Asiana Airlines (Seoul Inchon International Airport)

5. Swiss International Airlines (Zurich International Airport)

6. Singapore Airlines (Singapore Changi International Airport)

7. SAS Scandinavian Airlines (Copenhagen-Kastrup International Airport)

8. Malaysia Airlines (Kuala Lumpur International Airport)

9. China Airlines (Taipei-Chiang Kai Shek International Airport)

10. Qantas Airways (Sydney International Airport)

Also see related article by Sophia Banay / Forbes Magazine &
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Publication:Airguide Online
Date:May 30, 2006
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