The All-Out Fight for Your Airport-Lounge Loyalty

A new Capital One Lounge at Denver International Airport opened in Concourse A in November.
A new Capital One Lounge at Denver International Airport opened in Concourse A in November.

Summary

United Airlines and Capital One up the ante in Denver as lounge options proliferate for fliers.

DENVER—If you want a peek into the one-upmanship under way to win your airport free time and travel and credit-card loyalty, spend an afternoon at Denver International Airport.

Yes, there’s a giant new American Express lounge in Atlanta and shiny new Chase lounges at LaGuardia and JFK. But no U.S. airport can beat that new-lounge smell flowing into Denver’s concourses. The busting-at-the-seams Colorado hub is a hotbed of new lounges, rife with high-quality grab-and-go food, custom IPAs and shrimp banh mi. The upgrades underscore the high stakes to woo big-spending travelers and are a preview of things to come at an airport near you.

Capital One, a recent lounge entrant competing with American Express and Chase for travel-loving premium cardholders, opened its third lounge in Denver.

United Airlines, the airport’s busiest carrier, opened two new lounges in Denver last summer—one is its largest worldwide. It joined Club Fly, United’s first and only grab-and-go market for club members in a rush, which was launched in 2022. A third United lounge is under renovation and scheduled to open in 2025. And there are plans for an even fancier dedicated lounge for travelers booking United’s pricey Polaris business-class tickets.

United made a big bet early in the pandemic on an eventual rebound in premium travel demand and doubled down on lounge space and premium seats in places like Denver and Newark, N.J. “We planned ahead for this," United President Brett Hart said late last year.

Why Denver?

Lounge operators love Denver’s sizzling passenger traffic. The airport welcomed nearly 78 million passengers in 2023. That marked a 12% increase from 2022, when it was the third-busiest U.S. airport by passengers.

United and Southwest Airlines have grown rapidly at DIA. (Southwest doesn’t operate lounges but has a credit-card relationship with Chase. Chase has no near-term plans to open a lounge in Denver.)

Jonna McGrath, vice president of Denver airport operations for United, says its previous clubs in Denver were dated and couldn’t handle the airline’s growth at the hub. United will have 90 gates in Denver by this fall, up from 66 in 2019.

United’s 35,000-square-foot, two-level club on the B concourse, its largest anywhere, has space for 600 passengers. It’s a showpiece for the airline, offering more amenities and types of food than even some veteran travelers might expect. In one bar, travelers can order flights of local beer and play tabletop shuffleboard.

Denver consultant Vic Dukay visited the club near Gate B44 in Denver recently, using one of two passes he gets from a United credit card. He says the breakfast food was better than what was on offer at the old clubs, though he struggled to find a seat.

“In comparison to other United Clubs, this is a significant upgrade,’’ he says.

Grab-and-go is a hot trend in airport lounges. These aren’t areas to, well, lounge. Instead, fliers can avoid long food lines in the terminal and grab something decent on the way to their gates without airport-concession sticker shock.

United takes it to the extreme in Denver with the grab-and-go-only Club Fly near Gate B60. There’s self-serve coffee and a coffee bar serving lattes with Club Fly latte art. I had read about the new concept, but found it even more impressive in person, like one of those self-serve markets popping up at sports arenas to reduce lines.

On my morning visit, the fridges were stocked with Noosa yogurt, fruit cups, hard-boiled eggs and roast beef-and-cheddar and turkey-and-pesto sandwiches.

The best part: You don’t pay. Well, don’t pay extra. A United Club membership ranges from $550 to $650 a year, or you can purchase a day pass for $59 where available. (Some United credit cards include lounge access.)

United’s McGrath says it’s particularly popular with connecting passengers in a hurry. Two out of three United passengers at the airport are there on a layover.

Capital One raises its bet

The Capital One lounges—where Love Your Layover is the marketing slogan and occasional Wi-Fi password—have taken grab-and-go to new heights since the third opened in November.

The first thing you see when you walk into the lounges in Denver and Washington’s Dulles International Airport: a coffee stand or bar, self-serve taps with lattes, cold brew and other drinks, and an assortment of to-go food. I found chia pudding with pineapple, beet and pear salad and a vegetable wrap with hummus among the offerings.

Airport lounges traditionally have frowned on guests removing food. Here, they offer brown paper to-go bags.

“If they want to get on their way they can,’’ says Jenn Scheurich, managing vice president and head of Capital One Travel. “And they’ve still had the opportunity to enjoy a real great experience in our lounge.’’

The Capital One lounges are two lounges in one. Beyond the grab-and-go area, Capital One offers traditional lounge fixtures, elevated a notch. There’s a bar with the coolest complimentary drink menu I’ve seen at a U.S. airport lounge, including beer made specifically for the lounge, and custom glasses for signature drinks.

Travelers are already walking away with them, something Capital One anticipated. The ceramic mug for one drink you get in Denver has this stamped on the bottom: “On permanent loan from Capital One.’’

The food setup recalls the upscale buffets in Las Vegas before the pandemic, with small plates instead of a giant chafing dish or messy platter of food. On the menu in Denver: deviled eggs, tomato confit crostini and sloppy joes with Colorado ground bison.

Morgan Jason, a Denver financial-services manager, has already been to the Capital One lounge three times this year.

For a February family trip to Cancún, she and her husband brought their two kids and her parents into the lounge because each has Capital One’s top-of-the-line Venture X Rewards card. The annual fee is $395 a card. (Delta and American Express have tightened guest policies due to lounge overcrowding, but Capital One has a liberal guest policy, at least for now. It also sells day passes to the public for $65.)

They had breakfast and grabbed sandwiches to go for lunch, a big money saver.

Jason had Chase’s premium card in her wallet until last year, when they heard about the Capital One lounge coming to her home airport.

“We immediately switched,’’ she says.

Write to Dawn Gilbertson at dawn.gilbertson@wsj.com

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