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Overcrowding At American Express Centurion Lounges Introduction
American Express is a leader in premium travel reward cards in Canada, with a range of products essential to any travel hacker’s wallet. American Express Membership Reward cards regularly top my list of the best credit cards in Canada, and feature some impressive welcome bonuses throughout the year. Right now American Express is offering the highest available sign-up bonus in Canada on their Business Platinum Card and Personal Platinum Card, and the highest available sign-up bonus with no first-year annual fee on their Business Gold Rewards Card. Furthermore, Platinum cardmembers get a ton of extra value including access to Fine Hotels and Resorts, SPG Gold status, and airport lounge access. While I used to value lounge access more when I wasn’t travelling premium cabins on award tickets, it’s still great to have options, though overcrowding at American Express Centurion lounges has been a growing concern, with capacity issues from the beginning.
While I’ve never had an issue at the Seattle lounge (which is comparatively quite small), the San Francisco lounge is almost unusable at times. On my last visit at SFO, it took almost 20 minutes to find a seat. It literally felt like looking for a parking spot at Costco in December. Not fun. This is an issue I read about at almost all Centurion lounges from time to time (full list of worldwide lounges can be found here).
What’s Causing The Overcrowding At American Express Centurion Lounges?
Simply put, I think the overcrowding is a product of the lounges being too good. Typically domestic lounges in America are terrible (though they are starting to improve), with Centurion lounges standing out for food/beverage options, and a more pleasing aesthetic. When given the choice, I will always choose Amex over a United or Air Canada lounge, and I don’t think I’m alone there.
Furthermore, Amex has to have one of the most generous guesting policies out there, with each cardmember allowing two guests for free. This is actually a reduction from when they first opened, when Amex allowed 3 guests per cardmember, and also sold day passes for non-Platinum and Centurion cardmembers for $50 per visit.
Is Anything Being Done To Address The Overcrowding At American Express Centurion Lounges?
Apart from the cutbacks to guest privileges and day passes for non-cardmembers, not much has been done to reduce overcrowding. Expansion is on the horizon at some lounges, but likely isn’t a systemwide solution since some airports simply don’t have the extra real estate.
Miles to Memories reported yesterday that Amex was piloting a couple of new policies that would help reduce overcrowding at the Seattle Centurion Lounge (interestingly the only one that has never felt crowded to me). Specifically, lounge access was being restricted two ways:
- Inbound boarding passes not being permitted for entry
- Lounge access restricted to two hours prior to scheduled flight departure
While I can see the sense in restricting inbound traffic, the two hour rule seems silly. Many people arrive to the airport 3 hours prior to a scheduled international flight, leaving a gap between clearning security and having access to the lounge.
The Points Guy later clarified that these new access policies were not being implemented with any regularity, but rather just during peak times or irregular operations (Miami Airport was experiences delays due to tropical storms which required capacity control at the lounge).
My Thoughts On Overcrowding At American Express Centurion Lounges
Something has to be done – that much is clear. I don’t think there’s an easy answer, outside of expanding all of the spaces to supply the growing demand, though I think that’s not realistic given the cost of airport real estate (and lack of space at some airports). Any changes that are made will likely impact some travellers negatively for the overall improvement for others. If nothing changes, nobody will get a positive experience.
My last trip through San Francisco was a zoo, to say the least. The food was almost always empty, as they couldn’t replenish fast enough, the bathroom was disgusting, and the bar staff seemed overwhelmed and stressed. Also, it took about 20 minutes to find a seat, and in the end that meant sharing a table in the dining area with a fellow traveller without a power source for my laptop.
So allow me to play armchair executive for a moment. Here’s what I would do to address the overcrowding at American Express Centurion Lounges:
Reduce Guest Privileges
Certainly not going to be a popular move with families, but I think this is the easiest way to address capacity issues. Some people are saying no guests with the primary cardmember, but I think the more rational move would be to limit one guest per cardmember. So what about your family of four? Easy – spouse gets a supplementary card, which has the same access privileges. Bottom line is if you want to come as a group, there should be more than one person with a card. Another option would be a set number of guest passes per year, which could be a good solution for families who don’t travel regularly.
No Access For Inbound Boarding Passes
This is one I used recently on my first class trip to Singapore, when my incoming flight arrived earlier than the check-in counters opened for my outbound flight (on a separate ticket). Rather than leaving security and hanging out in the airport, I sat in the lounge and had breakfast, and left once I was able to get ticketed for my next segment. I believe there are a lot of people who take advantage of this access, but it seems like a reasonable cut. These are meant to be departure lounges, not arrivals.
Limit Access 3-4 Hour Prior To Departure
While I agree with limiting access based around departure time, I believe two hours is much too short. If you want to have a shower, a drink, a meal, and potentially get some work done, 2 hours simply isn’t enough time. Furthermore, most people arrive 3 hours prior to departure for international flights, which should be taken into consideration. For this to work though, they probably need to make it systemwide. How frustrating would it be to show up 5 hours before a flight in Las Vegas after you’ve been kicked out of your hotel at noon only to be told access at T-3 hours only, shortly after a visit in Hong Kong where you were allowed to hang out all day. Inconsistency has to be my least favourite thing ever, and the average traveller wont be researching lounge specific access rules before each trip.
Increase The Fee On The Platinum Card
Probably not going to be popular, but why not increase the fee on the Platinum Card and offer an exclusive and premium product. I think the Platinum Card has been diluted as of late (in all markets, not just Canada), so why not raise the fee and improve the benefits? Would I be willing to pay $1,000 a year knowing I would never have to hunt for a seat at a lounge, and maybe get some other benefit that’s currently not offered? Probably. I don’t think Amex will go this route though as they seem to have been trying hard to make the Platinum card more accessible in recent years, not more exclusive.
Overcrowding At American Express Centurion Lounges Bottom Line
I sincerely hope that American Express is looking at permanent solutions to the overcrowding in their lounges. The last few visits at SFO have been bad or terrible, and on one of the visits I actually opted to use the old United lounge instead, which felt like a zen garden compared to the madness in the Centurion lounge.
I don’t really know what the solution is, and there will almost definitely have to be some compromise, but isn’t that a better option than the current situation, which doesn’t seem enjoyable for anyone?
Have you visited a Centurion Lounge lately? Did you find overcrowding to be an issue? Tell us about your experience in the comment section below!