Delta bars employees from using Sky Club lounges

The Sky Lounge during a tour of Delta Air Lines Terminal C at LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in the Queens borough of New York, US, on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.

Stephanie Keith | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Delta Air Lines plans to curb employee access to its plush and popular airport lounges next month, its latest attempt to ease crowding.

Starting Feb. 2, Delta won’t allow employees to use the airline’s airport Sky Clubs when they’re flying standby with company travel privileges, the carrier told staff in a long memo on Wednesday. They will also be barred from using the Sky Clubs when traveling for company business.

“The employee discount on Delta Sky Club memberships also is discontinued,” said the memo, which was seen by CNBC. “While we understand this may be disappointing, know this decision was not made lightly. We are sure you’ll agree that delivering an elevated experience to our most loyal customers must be our priority.”

The lounges aren’t free for Delta employees. But they’ve been able to access them, provided they have certain credit cards or buy Sky Club memberships, while traveling with employee benefits or flying on nonrevenue seats, so-called nonrevving. Next month, staff will only be granted access to the lounges if they’re flying with a paid-for ticket.

Complimentary seats on planes are a major perk for airline staff, and they aren’t just used for vacation. Pilots and flight attendants often don’t live in their airline base cities and commute to work without paying for seats if space is available.

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“When we put our customers first and ensure that they have the best experience, they will continue to prefer Delta’s premium products and services — which ultimately benefits all of us,” the memo went on to say.

Delta previously announced stricter policies for Sky Club entry for regular customers, also set to take effect in February.

“Delta people understand the role we all play in delivering an elevated customer experience. That’s why employees will refrain from accessing Delta Sky Clubs when using their standby travel privileges or traveling for company business,” the airline said in a statement.

The measures come as Delta tries to reduce long lines and crowds at the lounges. Travelers have returned in droves, bearing piles of frequent flyer miles accumulated during the Covid pandemic and American Express rewards cards that grant entry to the clubs.

Delta and other major carriers are making elite status harder to earn this year in response, scaling back after pandemic freebies that allowed grounded customers to hold onto their perks. They are also making lounges bigger.

The changes announced Wednesday also apply to other airlines’ employees who are flying with Delta through complimentary staff travel benefits. A Delta spokesman said data wasn’t available on how many employees use its airport lounges while nonrevving.

Employees and retirees who bought club memberships or have Amex cards that come with lounge access can request a prorated reimbursement from Delta, the airline said.

“The solution to their own self-created crowding problem is to boot their own employees,” said one Delta pilot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t allowed to speak with the media. The pilot said that he and his wife each have an Amex Platinum card, which carries a $695 annual fee, and that he uses a Sky Club once a month to “go get an hour of peace and quiet” before a dayslong assignment. The lounges offer a wide array of free food, drinks, seating and workspace.

“We’re not freeloaders,” said the pilot. He said while “I’m not Jeff Bezos” he and his wife spend thousands a month on their Amex cards, but that he’s considering canceling them because of the lounge access change.

A spokeswoman for the Delta pilots’ union, the Air Line Pilots Association, declined to comment and said the benefit isn’t one that’s negotiated in aviators’ contract. Union leaders have been reviewing a new contract proposal this week that could lead to a tentative agreement.

A Delta flight attendant who also spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity for similar reasons as the pilot, called the decision “awful and humiliating.”

“This is a decision Spirit would make, not legacy Delta,” said the flight attendant, referring to the industry’s banner budget airline, which doesn’t have lounges.

Delta last year encouraged senior leaders to skip the Sky Clubs to avoid crowding. Delta didn’t say if it had plans to reverse the policy, which after Feb. 2 will be in effect “until further notice.”

American and United say they aren’t planning similar policy changes for their lounges, though carriers occasionally tweak employee travel policies. For example, those carriers paused certain employee travel perks to London over the summer due to congestion.

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