If you travel a lot, one of the least aggravating ways to spend time in an airport is in an airline club or lounge. If you need a quiet place to get a little work done, have some coffee or a light meal, or just want to avoid the mass of travelers, a lounge isn't a bad place to wait for a flight. Some of them are even pretty nice.
For example, Delta has recently made a big deal of the investment it's making in its lounges, known as Sky Clubs. I recently toured the new flagship Sky Club at Los Angeles International Airport and it's very nice, indeed.
Even though lounges seem like an exclusive place where only special people get to hang out, it's not at all hard to get access--most airlines will sell a membership to anyone willing to pay $500 or so. Depending on the airline, you can also sign up for one of any number of credit cards, like the American Express Platinum Card, for example.
Apparently, too many people are doing just that, because Delta announced on Wednesday that it was implementing new rules for access starting June 1. Now, you'll only be allowed to access a Sky Club beginning up to three hours before your flight, and you won't be able to access a club when you arrive at your destination.
The new policy applies to all Sky Club members, including those who bought lifetime memberships. The only exceptions are that the new policy doesn't apply to Delta 360° members or customers traveling in Delta One, the airline's international business class product.
To be fair, those don't seem like very big changes. Who wants to arrive at the airport more than three hours before their flight? And who wants to stick around once they land?
You can debate whether you think these changes are reasonable or not, but a lot of Delta's most loyal customers are pretty upset. Mostly that's because--on the surface, at least--it seems like Delta is making the Sky Club experience just a little bit less valuable.
For example, you won't be able to use a Sky Club when you arrive at your destination. Larger clubs in Delta's hub airports have showers, something that can come in handy when you arrive on a redeye for a day of meetings or after an international flight.
Delta sent customers an email explaining it was making this change to "ensure the best possible Delta Sky Club experience for you." That sounds reasonable. The truth is, airport lounges have gotten pretty crowded. On two recent trips, at LaGuardia and Detroit the Sky Clubs were at capacity and there were signs turning people away.
I guess figuring out a way to have fewer people lingering in a lounge is better than having people not be able to get in because the club is at capacity. That's a pretty poor experience--especially if you paid for a membership.
Except, this whole thing was pretty predictable. This is what happens when you give access to anyone willing to pay the annual fee on a credit card. It's not particularly surprising that there are a lot of people wanting to use the benefit offered when they signed up as people begin to travel again.
Delta says that it's working to improve the overall Sky Club experience. If you're going to sell something as a premium product, it's not ideal to have to turn people away because every seat is taken.
"These are not the only changes we're making," a Delta spokesperson told me in a statement. "We continue to invest in an elevated experience with new and modernized Clubs, localized food and beverage offerings, and premium amenities that we've received positive feedback on from customers."
The thing is, if too many people are using a product you sold them, I'm not sure the best solution is to make the overall experience feel worse for your customers. Even if you're making it better, if it feels worse to your customers, that's a problem. Especially because it seems likely that the customers who use airport lounges are more likely to be your best customers.
At a minimum, they either pay you for a membership because they travel a lot, or they're willing to spend $500 to $700 on an annual fee for a credit card that gives them access.
Either of those is good for business. If you spend a lot of time in airports, it's almost certainly because you travel a lot and buy lots of plane tickets. That's sort of the definition of a good customer. If you don't travel a lot, but pay the annual fee for a co-branded American Express card, you're still a very good customer for the airline (which makes money off those credit cards).
One of the simplest rules of business is that every company depends on the loyalty of its customers. It's almost always easier to keep a customer than it is to find a new one. It's why companies spend so much time and effort trying to provide the very best experience in order to persuade customers to keep spending their money.
In this case, the perception is that Delta is reducing the value of a benefit some of its best customers are paying for. Sometimes, you make a change because you believe it's the best thing for your customer. Sometimes it might even actually be the best thing for your customers. But if it doesn't feel that way to customers, you don't get bonus points for good intentions.