I visited a United Club during the pandemic and saw how the airline is re-imagining the airport lounge as it slowly welcomes back travelers

  • United Airlines is re-examining its airport lounges, called United Clubs, during the pandemic as the priorities of its top passengers have shifted towards health and safety. 
  • Only 10 lounges are open across a network of 33 airports as daily departures are slashed and international travel remains scarce but more are likely to be opened in the coming months.
  • We visited the United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport for a closer look at how the lounge is surviving the pandemic with fewer passengers and a reduced offering.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

United Airlines is slowly reopening its premium lounges, aptly named United Clubs, across the country as more flyers return to the skies.

Only 10 lounges have opened their doors with at least one at each of United's hubs in the US  but locations at 25 airports across the airline's global network remain closed. They normally cater to the airline's top flyers – including those flying in business and first class on select flights, elite status holders, and cardholders of certain United credit cards –  who have not yet returned in meaningful numbers to warrant the opening of additional lounges. 

United was similarly forced to close all of the Polaris lounges, its flagship lounge product geared towards international Polaris business class flyers that included showers, sit-down dining, and private suites. All Polaris lounges had been opened except for one location in Washington before the pandemic hit and the loss of premium international travelers warranted their temporary closure. 

With passenger priorities changing, United has adjusted the purpose of its lounges, focusing more on social distancing and safety than anything else. A five-point plan was crafted by the airline to guide the reopening process with a focus on examining everything from how guests enter the lounge to training staff on new health and safety policies and procedures.

Take a look inside what is now the only United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport.

United has consolidated its Newark operation to Terminal C, the airport's largest terminal used exclusively by United.

Even with the consolidation, the terminal remains quieter than normal with Newark seeing a reduction in daily United departures of around 50%.

With fewer departures, only one of the four United lounges at the airport remains open.

It's a quick walk or elevator ride up to the lounge but before passengers even step foot in the lounge, they're greeted with a hand sanitizer station…

And a reminder of United's new overall safety measures, in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic and Clorox. These signs can be found across the terminal from check-in to the gate.

Elevator riders will notice the social distancing placards that limit capacity to five at a time.

Those placards continue on the top floor and lead the way towards check-in.

The main hallway is divided by a rope where passengers heading into the lounge stay on the right and those leaving the lounge stay on the opposite side.

And there's another hand sanitizer station for good measure.

Plexiglass partitions have been installed at check-in, a common trend across the entire airport that also sees these partitions at gates and ticket counters.

Visitors are encouraged to scan their own boarding passes when verifying their eligibility to enter as a way to reduce interactions between lounge staff and passengers.

This lounge just reopened in July after being closed in the early days of the pandemic.

It has a very basic hexagonal design with capacity restricted to 202, down from around 400.

United used the downtime to change the layout and also slightly refurbish the lounge as it is one of the older lounges in the airline's network.

But even with the capacity restrictions, the lounge was nowhere near full during our visit where only 300 people had entered from the time the lounge had opened until 3 p.m.

That number will undoubtedly grow as United adds more departures from Newark but coastal hubs have taken a beating in terms of traffic numbers since international flights have been reduced.

Returning visitors to the United Club will notice a slight change of design with fewer tables and chairs in some places to better allow for distancing.

Instead of blocking seats or tables with a placard as other airline lounges have done, they've been removed entirely from the lounge.

These tables, for example, used to line the perimeter of the lounge along the inner window but a lot of them have been removed so they can be effectively spaced.

Chairs were also removed from high-tops so visitors can be spaced a few feet apart.

The low-density configuration helps make the experience more private, contributing to the goal of making the lounge a quiet, safe place to wait before a flight.

A benefit of the lounge's original design was that it included these single-person workstations, separated from each other with high walls that aid in social distancing.

Beyond the design changes, visitors will also notice a scaled-back food offering.

This self-serve buffet would normally feature a mixture of hot and cold food items including soups, breads, and salads, but fresh food has largely been replaced with pre-packaged snacks.

United is trialing an enhanced pre-packaged food offering to include items like salads, breakfast parfaits, wraps, sandwiches, and desserts. Lounges in Denver, Chicago, and Honolulu will be the test lounges. 

Well-known snacks are represented included Ritz…


Chips Ahoy…

Wheat Thins…

And Doritos.

Slightly fresher food items include mozzarella cheese sticks…


Individually packaged apples…

And classic mixed nuts.

During lunchtime, Smucker's peanut butter and jelly Uncrustables sandwiches are also available on request while staff will come around with yogurts, selections of cheeses, blueberry muffins, and banana nut muffins throughout the day.

Other hours of the day will also see hard-boiled eggs and cup noodles on offer, depending on the mealtime.

The offering isn't meant to be permanent as United is in the midst of revising its lounge dining strategy.

But the strategy, for now, is focused on small bites that passengers can grab and quickly bring back to their seats.

The bar area has also been scaled back with United removing all tables and barstools to avoid crowding in the area.

This now-barren space, for example, used to be filled with tables and chairs

And barstools formerly lined the bar so passengers could watch television while enjoying a drink.

But United doesn't want passengers to linger here so those amenities have been removed. Plexiglass partitions have been installed at ordering stations to further reduce contact between staff and patrons.

Coffee is now also served by bartenders as the self-serve machines have been shut to lower the number of touchpoints in the lounge.

The bar's offering remains the same with house beer, wines, and liquors remaining complimentary.

Cocktails and more high-end items will still cost, however.

For soft drink users, the multi-drink Coca-Cola machine provides countless options from sparkling water to classic Coke. It even has QR functionality so passengers can operate the machine using their own device.

I was able to make this sparkling lemon-lime Dasani without touching the screen. All drinks are also being served in these single-use cups so they can be easily discarded.

Hand sanitizer stations then flank the edge of the bar for patrons to use after getting their drink.

In an effort to further reduce touchpoints, magazines and newspapers have also been removed.

Cleaning the lounge falls under United's CleanPlus initiative that's in collaboration with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic. Facilities are cleaned daily and staff ensure that spaces are cleaned shortly after a passenger uses it.

Unlike other airline lounges, there are very few physical reminders to wear a mask or social distance in the seating areas of the lounge. United attributes that to a desire to use less paper and plastic.

Instead, overhead announcements and digital signage remind all patrons to wear a mask and social distance. Wearing a mask is required in all United lounges, except when eating and drinking, and anywhere in the airport.

Realizing that demand and traffic are down and will be for quite some time, United is re-examining the role of its lounges amid a new reality of air travel. Health and safety now take precedence over the typical lounge luxuries.

Travelers are spending less time in airports as fewer passengers are clogging up security checkpoint lines so the appeal of arriving early to enjoy the luxuries of the lounge is no longer an issue.

United will open more lounges are the number of daily passengers increase and has said it will open additional spaces before removing capacity limits in existing ones.

In Honolulu, for example, United is opening a lounge on November 21 as leisure demand increases to Hawaii. 

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