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Why haven’t ‘grab and go’ airport lounges launched in the UK?

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Airline lounges have remained relatively unchanged for decades. In exchange for a fee (or for buying a business class ticket or having elite status) you get access to a separate space, away from the hustle and bustle of the terminal concourse.

Often that includes a choice of seating ranging from restaurant tables to armchairs and sofas; refreshments and food are included, albeit of varying quality.

What’s the appeal? For business travellers it’s undoubtedly a place to work. Gate areas are designed as high-density waiting areas and not as convenient places to work, with charging ports a happy surprise rather than an expectation. The ready availability of drinks and snacks, meanwhile, means that you don’t have to go through the hassle of justifying every single coffee with your finance department.

Why haven't 'grab and go' airport lounges launched in the UK?

For leisure travellers, it’s the chance to sit in comfort and enjoy a glass of sparkling wine before a flight and snack on some “free” food.

Of course, different airlines and lounges manage to deliver varying experiences and some are undoubtedly better than others.

In small airports, a lounge might consist of tea and biscuits in a room the size of an average-sized living room. At the other end of the spectrum, Emirates’ and Qatar Airways’ cavernous lounges at their homes cater to thousands of transiting passengers every hour.

Why haven't 'grab and go' airport lounges launched in the UK?
The scale of Qatar’s Al Mourjan lounge in Doha makes it feel like part of the terminal

Either way, airport lounges are a booming industry. There’s no doubting the format’s success in recent decades with hundreds, if not thousands, of new openings. These have been led by independent lounge operators such as Aspire and Plaza Premium, which pioneered the airline-agnostic lounge in 1998.

You don’t need to be flying in business class, either. Lounge access is bundled in everything from credit cards to package holidays, whilst companies such as Priority Pass and DragonPass will sell you membership cards as if it’s access to a private members’ club.

Have we reached ‘peak lounge’?

It’s hard to argue against the proliferation of airline lounges. More lounges equals more competition and more choice, with different lounges catering to varying markets. Take Gatwick, for example, which in addition to a number of airline lounges also features four unique brands owned by Collinson (co-incidentally also the company behind Priority Pass):

  • MyLounge: the ‘budget’ entry-level lounge offering aimed at holidaymakers with a ‘shabby chic’ / industrial aesthetic
  • Club Aspire: a mid-tier lounge aimed at business travellers
  • No1 Lounge: a mid-tier lounge aimed at families and couples going on holiday
  • Clubrooms: the exclusive, top-tier lounge offering with table service and a greater choice of food and drink

Manchester Airport, which operates its own lounges, is similarly structured. It has the mainstream Escape Lounge complemented by the more-premium 1903 Lounges. Pre-covid Manchester Airport launched PremiAir (sadly still closed) – a standalone private terminal / lounge which could be booked for as little as £100 in a promotion and included being driven to your aircraft.

Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, lounge operators haven’t been able to keep up with the demand.

Space in airport terminals is at a premium and there comes a point when you run up against what is possible without a costly extension of the terminal building.

Why haven't 'grab and go' airport lounges launched in the UK?
Virgin’s Heathrow Clubhouse is one of the best lounges in the UK

This is the problem now faced by Virgin Atlantic, which would like to expand its Heathrow Clubhouse to accommodate increasing numbers of elite SkyTeam passengers but simply hasn’t found a way to do so.

At least in the UK, the cracks are starting to show. It’s not uncommon to have to queue to enter the independent lounges at Gatwick or Luton during peak periods, or even be refused outright.

The problem is less acute across Europe, where credit cards (and therefore bundled lounge access) are less popular.

Are grab-and-go lounges the solution to lounge overcrowding?

Where the US goes, the UK often followers. Lounges are no different.

Capacity issues are a major concern in the United States where credit cards with lounge access are handed out like candy. It’s such an issue that American carriers have moved to a two-tier system of lounges: premium lounges for those actually travelling on a business class ticket (think United’s Polaris or American’s Flagship lounges) and ‘Clubs’ for everyone else.

These Club lounges are often specced to lower standards and serve only basic snacks and drinks. If you want anything more substantial, or an alcoholic drink, you have to pay up.

Lately, US carriers have been trying something new to alleviate congestion: grab-and-go stations. First pioneered by Lufthansa with its ‘Delights to Go’ automated vending concept, the idea is gaining traction across the pond.

Why haven't 'grab and go' airport lounges launched in the UK?
Lufthansa’s ‘Delights to Go’ concept offered machines vending meals

Air Canada was first out of the gate with its ‘Air Canada Cafe’ at Toronto Pearson back in 2019. This offers “customers a wide selection of specialty beverages to Grab & Go or to be enjoyed with complimentary Wi-fi in a relaxed, bistro-type setting.”

This is, as the name suggests, closer to a cafe than a full-blown grab-and-go lounge: it still had seating for 109 passengers, albeit in a more casual, coffee house set up.

Why haven't 'grab and go' airport lounges launched in the UK?
Air Canada Cafes offer more casual, Pret a Manger style spaces

United took the concept a step further with its ‘United Club Fly’ concept in Denver, which launched last year. This is a tiny lounge – a micro-lounge, if you will – designed for passengers on short connections. With just sixteen seats and standing room for an additional eight, you won’t be loitering here long.

What it does offer is pre-packaged food and drinks such as sandwiches, wraps, salads, yoghurt, fruit cups, cereals, crisps and more. The idea is that you pop in, grab what you need and keep going.

Why haven't 'grab and go' airport lounges launched in the UK?

Delta is following with a pilot project, in part to deal with major overcrowding issues at its lounges in New York and Atlanta. Queues to get into the SkyClub are a regular occurrence.

To deal with this issue Delta is issuing vouchers to the Grab and Go station if you are willing to forego the lounge itself. It’s not clear how popular this is or how successful the uptake, but it does at least give passengers a choice.

What about UK lounges?

Oddly, the concept has yet to appear at any UK airports. This is despite the fact that I can, off the top of my head, think of a number of places where a grab and go concept makes sense.

London City Airport

Let’s start with the obvious one first: London City Airport. Whilst convenient, London City has always struggled for terminal space: after all, it’s located on a small strip of land between the Royal Albert and King George V Docks. It has never had an in-terminal lounge (although it did, pre-covid, have a First Class Terminal.)

With plans for the terminal redevelopment in purgatory, the airport is currently modernising and reconfiguring the existing spaces, adding in additional retail and dining space. It is still too small for a fully-blown airport lounge and besides, most passengers arrive 60 minutes or less before departure knowing they can breeze through security and walk onto their aircraft.

Why haven't 'grab and go' airport lounges launched in the UK?

It’s the perfect spot for a grab-and-go lounge offering pre-packaged sandwiches, wraps, salads and drinks for anyone on the go.

The costs would be minimal: all you need is a small corner somewhere, and couple of members of staff to restock and scan any ‘purchases’. The cost of the food would be minimal given that a meal deal is widely available on the high street for between £3 and £5.

Heathrow Arrivals lounges

Arrivals lounges are, it seems, a covid casualty. The British Airways arrivals lounge at Heathrow has over 100 shower pods but never appears full; Plaza Premium, which previously operated arrivals lounges at Heathrow Terminals 2, 3 and 4 has permanently closed them.

But here’s an idea: why not offer a grab-and-go station instead? I can see the value in offering a shower and a breakfast bag with choice of sandwich, some coffee, orange juice etc. This cuts out the ‘lounging’ part of the lounge and strips it down to the bare minimum if arriving from a long haul flight.

I can even see the value in arriving from somewhere and being able to pick something up on my way home, rather than having to worry about fixing dinner or ordering in when I arrive. And a bit of hydration on the long tube journey home wouldn’t go amiss ….

Why haven't 'grab and go' airport lounges launched in the UK?

Heathrow Terminal 5

BA’s terminal is home to some of the busiest lounges I have ever had the (dis-)pleasure of using. No matter what time of day you are flying, they are almost universally rammed. There’s a reason that we haven’t been able to write fresh reviews of most of them for almost a decade.

Some of this is down to capacity – there simply isn’t enough lounge space. Some of it, surely, is also down to the sheer volume of BA Gold and Silver cardholders and any oneworld Sapphire or Emerald members who are travelling in economy.

One solution could involve opening up an additional grab-and-go outlet in the terminal. This could let you pick up a meal deal and, like Delta, rescind your right to the lounge.

I think this could be a very attractive option for anyone with little time to spend and who is also flying in economy, where all you get is a small bottle of water and some crisps.

For the record, I’m not arguing that BA should ban Gold and Silver cardholders from the lounges if they are travelling in economy; simply that they be given an alternative should they want it. More carrot than stick.

It’s certainly an idea they should consider if and when they come to refurbishing their flagship lounges in Terminal 5.


Are grab-and-go outlets the answer to all the airport lounge woes we’ve been seeing recently? Certainly not. Airlines and airports should continue to invest in full-scale facilities where there is demand.

But there are, I think, a number of opportunities for airlines and airports in the UK when it comes to diversifying the existing lounge offering and giving passengers a choice. If it comes with additional benefits (such as reducing lounge overcrowding) then all the better.

It’s also hard to see how the maths doesn’t work for the independent lounge operating companies. Take Priority Pass, for example, which we believe pays lounge operators around £10 – £12 per passenger. You can easily buy a meal deal at Heathrow or Gatwick for about £5, so the lounge operator has significant capacity to play with.

There is, of course, a third option, and one that we’ve already seen Priority Pass do: offer credit in airport restaurants and cafes. Could this also extend to vouchers for Pret a Manger?

I’m somewhat surprised we haven’t seen the idea take root in the UK but with infrastructure investment unlikely to match growing passenger numbers it can only be a matter of time. Let’s see what emerges.

Comments (168)

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  • Rizz says:

    Don’t think the article is really correct re United and US lounges in general. “Clubs” are not for “everyone else” as UA’s own elites do not get access while flying domestic which is a critical difference vs Europe. Lounge access is also not given out with credit cards like candy – in case of UA, only the most expensive cc with $525 annual fee comes with access to UA Clubs. Other UA co-branded cards come without lounge access.

    • Marcw says:

      But there are other cards that come with lounge privileges (Capital One, Amex Platinum, Chase Reserve, to name a few)

      • Rizz says:

        Chase comes with Priority Pass – we all know how PP works. Amex Plat comes with Priority Pass and access to Amex lounges (same as in the UK) plus access to Delta lounges when flying Delta.

    • Rizz says:

      Still $525 annual fee is not giving out lounge access like candy.

  • Eli says:

    I often enough do a grab and go when time is too tight for the full experience.
    Only downside is, tha grab is not prepacked so it’s grab pack and go

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

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