Airport lounges a corner of calm for harried travelers

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Victor Liew tucked into a bowl of freshly made beef noodles in a world secluded from the teeming masses filling the hallways, terminals and stores at Taoyuan International Airport.

He retreated to the rarefied world of the airport lounge — a realm of muffled clinking glasses, just-made gourmet food and showers for overnight passengers in need of a few minutes of calm amid the strain of international travel. The Pleasanton, Calif., resident, a semiconductor engineer who crosses the Pacific some 34 times a year, relaxed in one of three lounges operated by EVA AIR, the Taipei-based airline favored by many technologists whose commutes include 13-hour flights between San Francisco International Airport and Taiwan and across Asia.

“I see the same people here,” said Liew, sitting in the Diamond Garden Lounge. “I find a cozy corner and log into WebEx for conference calls,” he said. “It’s very quiet, and the Wi-Fi is very strong. And the shower makes a big difference. You feel so refreshed.”

Airlines have long viewed lounges reserved for its elite travelers — business- and first-class ticket holders and their most frequent of frequent fliers — as a critical competitive service, said Alan Bender, professor of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. Asian carriers, in particular, invest heavily in lounge service, reflecting their focus on customer service, he said. And their passengers demand the extra care.

Bender was surprised to find the Delta Airlines lounge at Oregon’s Portland International Airport to be better than most airline lounges aimed at domestic travelers. The lounge, he discovered, serviced a lot of Japanese travelers.

“I asked them about it and they said, ‘Our Japanese customers demand it,’ ” he said. “They are not going to take just peanuts and popcorn and really mediocre appetizers found in many U.S. lounges. Asian passengers demand a higher level of service in the air and on the ground.”

While domestic lounges for U.S. carriers can feel more like an overcrowded restaurant than a respite from the rigors of modern travel, those servicing international passengers pour on the pampering, said Bender, who is in the air 200 days a year.

Mineta San Jose (Calif.) International Airport recently opened The Club at SJC, which replaces a lounge operated by American Airlines that shut down in 2010. The Club, which cost $1.6 million to build, was initially designed for premium travelers on All Nippon Airways, which has halted its five-day-a-week 787 Dreamliner San Jose-Tokyo service while U.S. and Japanese officials investigate the cause of battery fires on the grounded aircraft.

The lounge is also available to other San Jose International passengers, who buy a $35 day pass or are members of Priority Pass, which provides worldwide lounge access for an annual fee. Other airlines may also add access to the lounge as part of premium-class tickets in the future.

For airlines and midsized airports, lounge service is increasingly a critical service to offer to flight-weary business travelers, said Debby McElroy, executive vice president of the Airports Council International. “It’s a competitive tool,” McElroy said.

For many high-mileage travelers, an airline lounge is something of a protective bubble from the body-battering effects of bouncing across the globe with too little sleep and too much work. If nothing else, the rest areas provide a space to pause without fear of having an open laptop or charging iPhone being stolen.

“The lounge is no longer just a place for waiting for a departure,” said Masamichi Nagasaki, ANA’s Tokyo-based assistant manager of products and services strategy. “Lounge guests expect more.”

In the EVA Air lounges in Taipei, jet-lagged travelers from the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and elsewhere begin arriving just after dawn. They set up laptops and tablets and plug phones into outlets. They have a choice of drinks and Western and Taiwanese food, from waffles to steamed yams, hot soy milk and dumplings — some of the best lounge eats in the world.

“It’s clean, the food is hot, the seat is comfortable and the shower is great,” said Steve Arnold, a business traveler sitting in one of EVA’s lounges one morning. “Everything is first-class.”

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