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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

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.

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.

United has consolidated its Newark operation to Terminal C, the airport's largest terminal used exclusively by United.
Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Even with the consolidation, the terminal remains quieter than normal with Newark seeing a reduction in daily United departures of around 50%.

Even with the consolidation, the terminal remains quieter than normal with Newark seeing a reduction in daily United departures of around 50%.
Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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With fewer departures, only one of the four United lounges at the airport remains open.

With fewer departures, only one of the four United lounges at the airport remains open.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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...

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...
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Elevator riders will notice the social distancing placards that limit capacity to five at a time.

Elevator riders will notice the social distancing placards that limit capacity to five at a time.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Those placards continue on the top floor and lead the way towards check-in.

Those placards continue on the top floor and lead the way towards check-in.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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And there's another hand sanitizer station for good measure.

And there's another hand sanitizer station for good measure.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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This lounge just reopened in July after being closed in the early days of the pandemic.

This lounge just reopened in July after being closed in the early days of the pandemic.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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It has a very basic hexagonal design with capacity restricted to 202, down from around 400.

It has a very basic hexagonal design with capacity restricted to 202, down from around 400.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Instead of blocking seats or tables with a placard as other airline lounges have done, they've been removed entirely from the lounge.

Instead of blocking seats or tables with a placard as other airline lounges have done, they've been removed entirely from the lounge.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Chairs were also removed from high-tops so visitors can be spaced a few feet apart.

Chairs were also removed from high-tops so visitors can be spaced a few feet apart.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Beyond the design changes, visitors will also notice a scaled-back food offering.

Beyond the design changes, visitors will also notice a scaled-back food offering.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

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.

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Well-known snacks are represented included Ritz...

Well-known snacks are represented included Ritz...
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Oreos...

Oreos...
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Chips Ahoy...

Chips Ahoy...
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Wheat Thins...

Wheat Thins...
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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And Doritos.

And Doritos.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Slightly fresher food items include mozzarella cheese sticks...

Slightly fresher food items include mozzarella cheese sticks...
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Brownies...

Brownies...
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Individually packaged apples...

Individually packaged apples...
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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And classic mixed nuts.

And classic mixed nuts.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Other hours of the day will also see hard-boiled eggs and cup noodles on offer, depending on the mealtime.

Other hours of the day will also see hard-boiled eggs and cup noodles on offer, depending on the mealtime.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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The offering isn't meant to be permanent as United is in the midst of revising its lounge dining strategy.

The offering isn't meant to be permanent as United is in the midst of revising its lounge dining strategy.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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But the strategy, for now, is focused on small bites that passengers can grab and quickly bring back to their seats.

But the strategy, for now, is focused on small bites that passengers can grab and quickly bring back to their seats.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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The bar area has also been scaled back with United removing all tables and barstools to avoid crowding in the area.

The bar area has also been scaled back with United removing all tables and barstools to avoid crowding in the area.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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This now-barren space, for example, used to be filled with tables and chairs

This now-barren space, for example, used to be filled with tables and chairs
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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And barstools formerly lined the bar so passengers could watch television while enjoying a drink.

And barstools formerly lined the bar so passengers could watch television while enjoying a drink.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Coffee is now also served by bartenders as the self-serve machines have been shut to lower the number of touchpoints in the lounge.

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 United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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The bar's offering remains the same with house beer, wines, and liquors remaining complimentary.

The bar's offering remains the same with house beer, wines, and liquors remaining complimentary.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Cocktails and more high-end items will still cost, however.

Cocktails and more high-end items will still cost, however.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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Hand sanitizer stations then flank the edge of the bar for patrons to use after getting their drink.

Hand sanitizer stations then flank the edge of the bar for patrons to use after getting their drink.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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In an effort to further reduce touchpoints, magazines and newspapers have also been removed.

In an effort to further reduce touchpoints, magazines and newspapers have also been removed.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
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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.

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.
The United Club at Newark Liberty International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

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

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