A few years ago, a man in China discovered a free way to eat good food, grab free drinks, and  lounge about in relative luxury.

He bought a full-fare, first class airline ticket, flashed it to the attendant at a a luxury airport lounge, and spent the day inside. At closing time, instead of boarding a flight, he changed the departure date on his first class ticket to the following day. 

The next day, he came back. Then again, and again, and again, for more than 300 days before the airline caught on, according to reports. Then, he cashed in the ticket for a refund.

Obviously, that's an extreme case. But with the end of the pandemic, along with increasing airline travel and the value that many employees now place on their ability to work remotely, some top-tier public spaces are getting a lot more crowded.

Now, customers who pay to access those spaces, and who use them as originally designed, are beginning to notice-;and in some cases, complain. 

Case in point: Delta Air Lines, which recently made a significant change to its policy regarding who is allowed to use its Sky Club lounges in response to customer feedback. 

In short, eligible passengers -- a category that includes premium class travelers, those with frequent flyer status, those with eligible credit cards, and those who simply pay an annual membership fee -- can use Delta lounges for three hours before their scheduled departure (and not a minute more, as a reporter discovered).

Previously, there were no time limits. The rule changes are modeled after the policy at American Express Centurion Lounges, according to Delta, which is a partner to the airline. Exceptions to these limits exist for travelers on layovers or whose flights experience delays. 

So far, the Wall Street Journal reported, United, American, and Alaska airlines haven't made similar adjustments. 

"We're not a WeWork," Claude Roussel, managing director of Delta Sky Club, told the Journal, adding that the lounges are designed for passengers passing through, not travelers who might check out of a hotel early and camp out in the lounge for hours.

Wry as that remark might have been, it highlights how the places where people work have changed radically in such a short time. To wit:

  • We were arguably on a slow trend toward remote work before 2020,
  • With pandemic, we had complete lockdowns and semi-permanent work-from-home status for many employees,
  • We've now shifted to a hybrid model in which the ability to work remotely has become a sought-after work condition,
  • But at the same time, employers (ahem, Elon Musk) have begun to balk at the arrangement.

To use Roussel's pithy phrase about Delta Sky Clubs not being WeWorks, think back to what you thought of WeWork three years ago-;say, around the time of its first, astonishingly bizarre attempt to go public, or at the height of the pandemic, when the company resorted to paying employees $100 per day bonuses simply to show up.

Against that, we've now seen reports that WeWork and other coworking companies are experiencing boom times again, as startups leery of long-term leases sign on-;along with remote workers who don't mind having an office to go to (but don't want to be required to go to their employers' offices) become members again.

The point is that times are changing. While I don't know if Delta might wind up tweaking its policies a bit, overall we're more likely to see its airline competitors make similar changes. That's probably a good thing.

For the rest of us, we might view this as a leading indicator of the kinds of changes that companies in all kinds of industries might find themselves facing soon.

I follow the airlines because because they're like a nonstop parade of business school case studies that can help you think through similar challenges in your business.

In fact, I have an entire free ebook on the subject, with some of the best of the industry lessons of last several years: Flying Business Class, 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines.

In this case, I think one of the takeaways is clear. Your employees are working remotely. You're probably saving money as a result. Maybe invest some of it in stipends or benefits that make it easier for them to set up working from anywhere.

And save the airport lounges for the travelers trying to make their flights. Your employees who are still on the road might thank you for that, too.