For frequent business travelers, a quiet, sustaining lounge with edible food and real coffee might make the difference between a smooth trip and a bumpy one.
Before 1978, Chinese airport lounges were nothing more than waiting areas for governmental officials. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that airports began providing lounges with minimal facilities for passengers. Now, first class lounges, providing a host of services and amenities, exist in every major airport, as do VIP lounges and club lounges.
VIP lounges, extensions of the lounges 30 years ago, host government officials and business leaders in private settings. Club lounges offer a place to sit for members of participating organizations, like the China Unicom Customer Club which serves its namesake club members, as well as members of banks like Bank of Beijing.
Lounges, often run by state-owned companies semi-independent of the airport, make their money from the fee airlines pay them per visit, from organizations and economy-class travelers paying for use of the lounge. For example, airlines pay the Air China lounge in Beijing’s Terminal 2 US$15-20 per visit. Companies like Priority Pass, which sells membership allowing travelers access to airport lounges around the world, also contribute to lounge income. Priority Pass charges US$399 for unlimited lounge use in participating airports, including almost 20 cities on the Chinese mainland.
Most Chinese lounges, with the exception of those reserved for government officials or bank or phone club members, allow economy class passengers to purchase entrance.
There is not a big price or quality difference between Beijing’s first class and business class lounges. Entrance into a business class lounge for economy passengers is generally US$6 cheaper, with admission fees start at around US$24.
Compared with the first class lounge, Air China’s business class lounge gets more crowded, has slightly worse furniture, and serves slightly sadder sandwiches. Both lounges offer two sizes of private meeting rooms. The larger one, at 50 square meters, seats 10 people and costs US$440 for two hours. Showers and sleeping stations are becoming more and more common. The BGS lounge in Beijing offers copies of the Financial Times and Newsweek, and even has a mini-golf putting green.
Mainland lounges still pale behind those in service-oriented powerhouses like Hong Kong or Singapore. The Plaza Premium Lounge in Singapore’s Changi Airport advertises itself as a "shower, massage, and fitness lifestyle lounge," with a full gym, massage facilities and even an aromatherapy room.
Constantly voted the "Best Airport" award by Skytrax, an airline consultancy, Hong Kong International Airport’s Cathay Pacific lounge allows passengers to luxuriate in one of their four restaurants, a full service day spa, or even their own private jacuzzi.
Business travelers differ in their opinion of Beijing airport lounges.
"The Air China lounge is pretty nice," said John Berkstresser, a pilot with Continental Airlines. "It’s similar to lounges in the States, only much quieter."
Vipul Sarabh, a frequent traveler between China and India, doesn’t rate the Air China lounge at all. "The food does not look appetizing, and look at the color scheme!" he said, gesturing at the wall. "The service is fine, as it generally is in China, but that’s not what lounges are for. They’re to grab some bite, to relax, and this is not the place for that."
Nevertheless, some customers believe there have been a substantial improvements to mainland lounges. Sunny Wang, who works for the US Patent and Trademark Office, was born in China but has lived in the US for 20 years.
"I am very impressed with the lounges here," she said. "Every time I come back I feel like it is closer to catching up with lounges in the US. Maybe now it’s even better."