Travelers are flocking to airport lounges looking for free food and drinks and, perhaps most importantly, a way to relax away from the crowds of travelers at the gate. The problem: Many other travelers are too.

Equipped with high-value rewards credit cards and fresh from years of big spending, more and more travelers are gaining access to airport lounges, transforming what were once small, exclusive spaces for a small elite into an essential stopover for millions of passengers.

The trend presents both an opportunity and a challenge for airlines and credit card companies as they market luxury to the masses. The spaces must be both exclusive and accessible to enough people.

Standard airline lounge access is free or discounted for top frequent flyers and certain credit card holders. Individual annual lounge memberships cost between $650 and $850 on major U.S. airlines, which have increased their prices in recent years.

Delta’s new Sky Club at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport

Benji Stawski/CNBC

Delta Air Lines’ Sky Club lounges — and the credit cards that allow access to them — became so popular that customers complained about the long lines and crowds at many locations. In response, the airline restricted employee access, imposed time limits and, in its most controversial move yet, announced annual visitation limits for many credit card holders – and even revoked access altogether for some credit cards.

But many customers also complained about the changes because they were too strict. This week, Delta rolled back some of the changes, highlighting how difficult it has become to find the right balance between exclusivity and access.

“Any wait is too long, and we’re doing everything we can to minimize that,” said Allison Ausband, Delta’s chief customer experience officer, last summer at the opening of a new, larger Sky Club at John F. Kennedy International Airport told CNBC New York.

She said the lounges are “by no means a profit center for Delta” but rather an “investment we are making in our customers’ premium experience.”

Delta executives said sales growth in its premium products such as business class has exceeded that of main cabin economy products.

More room

Delta, United Airlines and American Airlines are scrambling to build more and larger lounges and spaces to meet high demand.

They have also divided their lounges into different levels or are planning to do so. United, for example, opened a grab-and-go Express Club at its hub at Denver International Airport last year for travelers with tight connections, which the airline said could free up space in more full-service lounges.

The airline separately operates a network of Polaris lounges for travelers booked in the highest cabin class, typically on long-haul international routes.

United Airlines Polaris Lounge at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Leslie Josephs | CNBC

Delta is in the process of building a network of top-tier lounges aimed at travelers in its Delta One suites and other top customers. These spaces are scheduled to open next year, initially at Kennedy Airport, followed by Los Angeles and Boston.

Credit card issuers such as JPMorgan Chase, Capital One and American Express are also opening new spaces at airports to attract and retain high-spending customers.

“Customers reward companies that care and stand with them and create amazing experiences,” said Jenn Scheurich, travel director at Capital One.

The company has opened clubs at Washington Dulles International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and plans to open one at Denver International Airport early next month, along with other projects at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Capital One Venture holders The general public can attend for $65 per visit.

Chase opened its first Chase Sapphire Lounge in Hong Kong in 2022 and its first in the United States at Boston Logan International Airport in May, with a taproom and massage chairs. There are plans to open additional lounges at LaGuardia Airport, Washington Dulles Airport, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Diego.

These lounges are open to customers with Chase Sapphire Reserve cards, which have a $550 annual fee, and two guests.

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